Saturday, September 20, 2003

Stories

"A word after a word
after a word is power."
-Margaret Atwood

I've been thinking about the ways the stories we tell ourselves create and change the meaning of our lives. Humans are by nature narrative creatures - it's nigh unto impossible for any of us to simply say "this happened." We have to add why we think it happened and what happened before and after, and, as likely as not, a pat moral to tie it into a neat little knot. All of this serves to create the illusion that certain events are inevitable, fated, meant to be. But the meanings we construct out of our lives aren't immutable and the ways we choose to interpret events shape our lives in powerful and very real ways.

It seems like it must be some kind of complex feedback loop - we experience life, and attempt to create meaning through narrative. Certain events become embedded with cultural meanings that seem almost inescapable, as do the outcomes of those events. But if we consciously choose to change our interpretation of those events, can we change the outcomes? The example that comes to mind is the familiar therapy technique of referring to yourself as a "survivor" rather than a "victim" - does this actually help you feel more empowered?

I'm wondering about this not only in the context of self-improvement or therapy, but also in terms of parenting. In almost every family there is a tendency to assign labels to children - "the smart one," the pretty one," the musical one," etc. These labels come complete with a backstory that affects the whole family. The daughter who's valued for being beautiful and feminine doesn't bother with academics, her "smart" sister is an honor student but backs away from social situations. The "good" daughter who takes care of her elderly parents enables her siblings to avoid this responsibility without guilt - after all, she's fulfilling her role in the family.

In almost every interaction with our children we're creating stories for them about the world and themselves. Common narratives include "the world is a dangerous place," "your body is shameful," "you must be independent" and "money and status are important." We may not even buy into these stories, but they're entwined in so many of the parenting practices of our culture that we often pass them along without even realizing it.

Anyway, this is on my mind, and it may end up being the topic of a future column. I'd love to hear what other people think about this stuff - use the comments feature, or email me, or write about it in your blog (but if you do, please post a link in the comments so that I can read your thoughts).

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