The Stories We Tell
As Season 8 of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame begin to fade from prominence and take their place in the annals of the past and we all stagger around with a collective post-entertainment hangover, dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of writing, world-building, and character development, I'm reminded all over again of the importance of story in making sense of the world. We fell into the worlds of Westeros and the Avengers (and countless others) not only because the stories were engaging, but because in those stories we felt a sense of something greater and more epic than our day-to-day lives, or because through the lens of story we felt a broader meaning. We were caught up in the intoxicant of speculation; we worried over characters as if they were our relatives (or ourselves). I brought tissues to Avengers: Endgame and between me and Charles ploughing through them still ended up wiping my nose on my shirt.
After binge-watching the latest season of Cobra Kai on YouTube, I've been motivated to go back and watch the original Karate Kid movies - and next up, I plan to glut myself on Good Omens.
Gently ribbing me over my Karate Kid fanaticism, Charles pointed out that the story lines were wholly predictable.
"I KNOW," I said, filled with joy. "Johnny Lawrence is going to face some hard truths about himself. Daniel LaRusso will be forced to question if he's the good guy after all. And in the end, I bet you anything they have to join forces against the evil sensei Kreese. AND I CANNOT WAIT." (Somebody else please watch this, I have to talk to someone about it.)
(See? Look at the tension of that stare-down. How can you not want to watch that?)
Here's the thing about predictable stories: they are outrageously satisfying. How awful would it have been if all of the Avengers just gave up on defending all of humanity and got jobs managing restaurants or running security at a local storage facility while bad guys wandered the multiverse unpunished? And for all the unhappiness over the supposed predictability Game of Thrones Season 8, I think I'm not spoiling anything if I say it would have been a much bigger bummer if all of the characters had been like, "You know what? I'm so sick of war. Let's open a commune where undead wights can serve as low-cost labor and spend 5 episodes knitting toasty winter sweaters for the less fortunate as we live in complete egalitarian bliss." Unpredictable? Sure. But also INSANELY disappointing. Huge, violent conflict was predictable, but it satisfied something inside of us - something that needed to see questions answered, the good rewarded, the evil punished.
This is why we would have loathed Harry Potter if Voldemort won, even with all of the magnificence of the world-building and the ingeniousness of the premise. We needed Frodo to destroy the One Ring; we needed Luke to defeat Vader. It would not have been satisfying if the Empire destroyed the rebel alliance or Sauron defeated all the forces of good in Middle-Earth. And yes, we needed Romeo and Juliet to die in order to see the full story of the strength of hate. Walter White was doomed the moment he cooked that first batch of meth, and we all knew it.
Story is how we make sense of the world around us; before we could write, as a species, we told stories. We told stories of nobility in the face of danger, of sacrifice for a greater cause, stories of love and loss, or forgiveness and exclusion and fear and misery and hope. These stories motivated us to be like the characters we admired, deterred us from behaving like the characters we disdained. It helped us make sense of abstract concepts like loyalty and compassion and bravery.
The interesting thing is this: while we insist on satisfying endings for our fictional stories, we are far less picky about the stories we tell ourselves in real life, the stories that define the most sweeping and intimate parts of our existence. It's like being super fussed about whether your best friend's kitchen is clean, but then going home and eating out of a dumpster.
"But I don't tell myself stories," you may be saying right now.
Oh, but friend, we all do. Constantly.
"I'm never going to get this right," is a story I tell myself a lot. "I'm just going to keep messing stuff up forever." We tell ourselves stories about being overweight, being incapable, being overwhelmed. We say, "Nothing ever works out for me," or "I guess I'm just destined to be alone." And because our story doesn't involve dragons or karate or epic quests, we tend to assume it's not actually a story - but it really is. It is the story of you being incapable, powerless, overwhelmed, doomed. And because stories are the media through which we understand everything, we begin to shape ourselves to fit the narrative we've created.
I know of a woman who spent 40 years telling herself that her husband, who had divorced her, would one day return. She told herself this in spite of the fact that he had married someone else and had several children. She died, alone, believing this. FORTY YEARS she spent, living in a story that wasn't remotely true. Think of all the opportunities for love, companionship, and happiness she ignored in four decades of telling herself the story that her ex-husband was coming back. In her head, she died a tragic heroine. In reality, she had created her own tragedy.
Just because a story is COMPLETELY FAKE doesn't mean that it won't control your life. It FOR SURE will. For many years, I told myself the story of being a martyr. This is a very provocative story; this story is a flirt for real. I was sacrificing myself for the good of my family, I decided - asking for nothing, getting nothing. All of my hopes, goals, and ambitions for myself had been forcibly shelved and I was going to be underemployed my whole life. Nobody would ever appreciate me as I slaved away for my children and spouse. I would live a threadbare existence, subsisting on the crumbs of affection and appreciation everyone tossed my way when they thought of me at all, perennially disappointed as I gutted myself for the good of everyone else.
The reason this story is so tempting is that it's this large-scale cop-out. If I am busy nailing myself up on the cross, I don't have to take responsibility for anything. I don't have to assume control of my career, have difficult conversations with my kids and/or spouse about how they need to step up their responsibilities around the house, or confront choices about pushing myself toward personal development. I just get to be sad and suffer, which is hella passive, and, even better, everyone else's fault. This last was the best part. Because I could be wretched, and not have to blame myself.
Well, stuff happened, and a little while later I was a single mom, and there I was with my thoughts and no other adult to shove the blame onto. And frankly, I realized, it was pretty shitty to shunt the blame off onto my kids, who in no way asked a) to be born, or b) for me to kill all of my aspirations for all of life for their sake. And all of this required that I tackle the story I had been crafting for myself for a very, very long time. Yes, I had put my ex-husband through graduate school 3 times. But nobody had forced me to do it. Yes, I was underemployed. But if I stayed that way, that was for sure on me.
Changing the story I told me about myself was harder than graduate school, which I ultimately put myself through. Instead of telling myself, "You're suffering for everyone's sake," I started telling myself, "You are so lucky you get to raise two amazing kids." Instead of saying, "You don't have time to do school and work full time," I said, "You are a person who does hard things." Instead of saying, "I'm not athletic," I said, "You may be the world's slowest runner, but you are a runner."
The universe kicked my butt about some other stories, too - the stories I was telling about other people, stories that were at least as dangerous as the stories I was telling about myself.
I still wince to think of this, but I said some very choice judgy things about a woman I knew who had been married three times. What a flake, I opined. She can't get it together to really commit? Three marriages is a 4-alarm fire for a personality disorder, people. There must be something SERIOUSLY wrong with her. The stories I told about this poor woman, based on nothing but my rampant imagination.
Y'all, Charles is my THIRD husband. I have now, at the ripe old age of 42, been married 3 times. And maybe I do have a personality disorder, and maybe there's something seriously wrong with me, but also maybe I just need to stop making up stories about both myself and other people.
If you think you don't do this, let me just toss this out there.
When you have an awkward social interaction (I have these literally all the time), do you inwardly say, "That person must think I am an idiot."
When a child behaves badly in the presence of their parent in a public place, perhaps with a full-scale screaming tantrum and everything, do you catch yourself thinking something along the lines of, "People who can't parent shouldn't have kids"?
When someone walks into a gas station barefoot, in cutoff shorts, after tossing a cigarette into the trash, do you assume she's got a Trump T-shirt or a MAGA hat at home?
We tell ourselves stories all day, every day, and when we don't have enough information to tell ourselves real stories, we make up fake ones." We fill in the gaps with speculation.
I could talk about stories for years, or for another few thousand words at least, but instead I'll say this: create the best possible story, for yourself and for everyone else.
Tell yourself a loving story, the sort of story you would tell to your most beloved friend or your precious child. Tell yourself the story of you being a good person, of trying hard, of always doing your best. Nobody ever became a good person by telling themselves what a bad person they are. But if you tell yourself you're a good person, when you encounter a difficult choice, you're more likely to ask yourself, "What would a good person do?" and then do that thing.
Once I started telling myself that I am a person who does hard things, this magical thing happened. Suddenly, hard things began to feel much easier. I was less afraid. Once I dealt with that first hard thing, the next hard thing was much less intimidating. Because I started saying, "You are strong," I became strong. I told myself I was a runner, even when it took me more than 43 minutes to finish a 5k (no exaggeration). And 7 years later, it's become true. I've finished 2 full marathons and 7 half marathons. This would not have happened if I had spent the last 7 years saying, "You are not a runner."
Tell yourself kind, encouraging, loving stories. This is not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it all the time, and then walk around being happy and kind and full of life, and then we would be delighted at the state of the world and unicorns would fart rainbows of peace all over our cities. I struggle with this a lot, in spite of my humble brag earlier about how I rocked this in like 3 specific instances. I spent most of my day today narrating to me about how undisciplined and lazy and unproductive I am.
But I have also found when I narrate kinder stories about me, I am more likely to fill in the unknown blanks with kinder stories about others (even when I haven't had a personal encounter to force me to say something along the lines of, "I'm sorry that that poor woman had to marry two people who weren't right for her before she finally found true love in her third marriage"). More importantly, I am more likely to create happy endings for myself.
When you see that woman at the gas station and make up the story, "She's probably a runaway princess in disguise," or even, "Man, she looks like she's had a rough day, I've had those too" instead of "OH MY GOD RACIST REDNECK ALERT," you feel better about the world you're living in.
We demand so much of fiction. Why don't we demand more of the stories of our actual lives?
Because YOU get to write that. And you're better at endings that Benioff and Weiss any day. Just ask literally anyone on the internet.
*One of the most troubling stories is the "If only" story - if only I'd taken that college scholarship in Pittsburgh, or played baseball instead of chess, or become a pianist, or dated that one person who asked me out junior year, or never moved to Talladega, or learned how to paint - in short, if only I had made a different set of decisions in an unknowable past, I would be happier.
This story is as tempting as the martyr story because it places the power for making your life better completely outside of your control. If only you'd done something else, you'd be skinny/ rich/ happily married/ professionally successful/ a movie star/ adored by everyone. Either way, it's not something you have any control of NOW.