Listen to the stories everybody tells.
One person will tell you that they are a survivor. They will tell you their story, full of characters. There will be good and bad people. They will explain what they have been through. They will tell you they are still here. They may choose the word survivor to label themselves.
Another person will tell you that they don’t want to live. They will speak about the absence of any interest left in the world, the colourlessness, the sadness, the regret. They will explain all the things that happened in their past which may have led them to their current state. They may say they have lost their hope.
Yet another person will speak with you briefly as they run off to run their company. They will give you more time if you can help them on their way. They are on a journey, self-defined, in which they are struggling against the forces of difficulty to create something, to build something. If they have time, they will tell you about the obstacles they face every day, and how they have learned to overcome some of them, but not all of them.
Notice that all of these people have learned to use a particular language about their stories. They present the facts in a certain order. They may tell you about their enemies first, how these other people make their life difficult. Then they may bring themselves in as a victim later on. Or perhaps they will choose the order of the histories they tell you. They may start with a childhood story, perhaps containing injustice. Then perhaps a more recent story, containing a similar injustice. And so on.
What does this all mean? Well, for one thing, it means that each individual is capable of composing their own story, their own chain of facts, presented in a certain order. If you watch yourself or others closely, you will see that these stories get consolidated like paths in a forest. On the two-hundredth telling, the language is becoming slightly concreted-over and compacted. There is less flexibility. You are supposed to hear the story as if it is God-given truth. You are not supposed to challenge or contradict the story.
We all feel we own our own stories. We think we know who the goodies are and who the baddies are. We are in the business of learning a speech about ourselves which we repeat again and again to everyone we meet. It is our explanation of ourselves, our ticket into tomorrow.
The thing is, it is a fairly illusory business, this storytelling. We, and those we know, are extremely selective of the facts. We are more like a barrister than a photographer, not capturing life as it is, but seeking to make an argument as to why we should be treated a certain way, left in peace, looked after kindly. We don’t stop telling the story until we feel safe. Some people never feel safe. They descend into repetitious stories of a heavily fictional nature. They may insist they are being followed, or persecuted, or are part of a mysterious world no one knows about. Some of them may be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
When we and others feel safe, however, we can learn to drop the stories. Freed from the need to perpetuate a certain story, freed from our self-defensive tendentiousness, we can look again at the world as a free agent, and take each day as it comes.
Maybe, just for today, drop your stories about who you are, and let yourself be whatever comes next. In particular, if we are all telling such stories to make ourselves feel safe, then perhaps we can spend some time helping each other to feel safe, so there is no more need for stories of the self-justifying kind.