Nothing great ever happened without a compelling story powering it. Think of the famous men and women of our history. They accomplished great and sometimes terrible things but they are remembered not because of what they did but because their stories were told. The collected details of their lives merge together in the telling of them to create a picture of who they were.
Think of the revered figures in the traditions of various religions. Maybe those prophets and saviors lived and maybe they didn’t. Whether miracles or prophecies were “true” is irrelevant. They are true to people today because of the story. Look at it that way and the stories themselves are a type of miracle.
Think of the places of the world. There is a story of America. There is a story of Paris. There are stories from the biggest cities to the smallest villages. They create a feeling of a place, a person or an event. Stories are truer than facts because they are what bring the world alive for us, for better or worse.
Even more fantastic is the variation of stories for every person. How you experience an unexpected snowstorm is very different if you’re 36 and anxious about making an early meeting or if you’re 5 and you just got a new pair of boots. A city street holds wildly different stories for people commuting versus ever-dreaded tourists. It’s the same street. Yet there are as many stories of it as people have walked its surface. The way we navigate the chaos of our days is a direct result of the stories we hold in our souls.
This is why I find it so disturbing to hear about how little the average adult reads. Without a wealth of stories in your toolbox, I don’t understand how a person can make sense of the world. I don’t know a more effective way to immerse myself in other people’s experience than in a book. Movies are a fantastic medium to inspire and entertain what’s happening to those people over there but there’s nothing quite like a book to experience their story with them.
Perhaps that is where racism, sexism or any other exclusive ‘ism comes from. When you only have one story, the world is a very narrow and dismal place. When you spend time in other people’s realities, you not only get better at experiencing other points of view but you get better at deciding what story you tell yourself as you travel the winding paths of your life. When confronted with two conflicting stories, you have to choose which one you’ll believe. Choosing is what makes us human and only having one choice is when our humanity drifts.
That’s why I experience a quiet awe when I walk through a library or a bookstore. It’s just paper and ink and bookshelves, yet the gathering of those elements electrifies the air with a magic that is unattainable in any other medium. Even a small bookstore has had more stories within its walls than I could possibly read in a lifetime. There’s the smell of it. There’s the feeling of the book spines on my fingers as I visit old companions who’ve taught me about courage and hope and wonder. When my day has me feeling narrow and frustrated, nothing pulls me back into the possibility of life like a bookstore.
As adults, we get too wrapped up in our own story and our stories aren’t very exciting. We wake up, go to work, work, come home, put the kids in bed, watch TV, go to bed, wake up, go to work, work, come home, put the kids to bed, watch TV…. Then one day we wake up and 10 years have gone by and we haven’t been really living the story of our own lives.
Stories are the lenses in which we perceive the world but they are also how we make sense of ourselves. Think about the stories you tell yourself. Where did you come from? What do you like? Where are you going? Who are you?
If you don’t like your story, change it.
The way we think about ourselves can drive our behavior. Thinking of yourself as an athlete rather than just surviving your gym workouts will help you train harder.
You’re not an aspiring writer. You’re a writer. Aspiring writers wait for their story to come while writers get their ass in the chair on a regular basis to hunt that sucker down. You’re not a student. You’re a scholar. Scholars love to learn instead of just slogging through required reading. You’re not a volunteer. You’re a Citizen. Citizens look for ways to help people and make their town and their country better rather than just complaining about what is wrong.
You’re not stumbling through your life. You are in the arena striving for greatness. You’re not broken by a terrible event. You are stronger, forged in the fire of life to fight for the extraordinary.
Look at the stories you tell yourself and discard the ones that are damaging and ramp up the ones that speak to your soul. Remember, nothing ever changed without a story leading the way. No one can tell you what your story is so do away with your excuses. The responsibility and burden of our stories are ours alone. Come up with new ones and go forth with the undeniable power of the story behind you.