A friend said to me recently that human beings are meaning makers when I said that we are story-telling creatures. It’s true, we view the world and the things in it and assign meaning to everything. Meanwhile, our subconscious/lizard brain uses over-simplified yes-or-no friend-or-foe logic in a constant search for patterns it can interpret as safety/security.
Our basic storytelling instinct, the place where fairy tales are born, is found at the intersection of logic and meaning. From the time that we are very small we learn certain storylines which we use to communicate who we are and connect with the people around us. In fact, there are two basic setups with a minimal cast of characters.
The Instinctual Stories
First, we have the story of being Distressed. This can be a hapless victim-type situation where we don’t understand why someone was angry or even mean with us. There’s also the standard something-upsetting-has-just-happened-and-I-just-need-to-talk-about-it/victim-of-life story which we use for commiserating because we usually tell these stories to people we know or believe have been in a similar situation and are likely to understand (a belief proved true when the other person shares a story of a similar hurt).
Second, there are the stories of our great Heroics. These are the stories we tell to make ourselves look good because we did something good or cool. Everybody wants to be good and or cool in a given situation, because that means you fit in (thank you, nobody-likes-a-downer society),
The Cast of Characters
When we tell stories about ourselves there are roles that need filling, knowing where you’re putting people – or where others are putting you – helps all of us tell better, more human stories.
The Adoring Peasantry is anyone you setup as a witness in your story, someone who saw you do that good/cool thing or saw that other person being mean to you or say something ridiculous right to your face. This character is a way to give a sort of secondhand testimonial of your coolness, because coolness doesn’t count unless there are witnesses.
The Villain/Challenger is anyone in opposition to you in a story, someone whose perspective you’re not in the mood to consider because it might mean admitting you’re wrong about something which might mean discovering something about yourself that isn’t good or cool.
The Distressed/Heroic is always you. It’s you when something happens to you and you need to commiserate and bond with someone over your hurt. It’s when you do something good or cool. It’s you when you’re in the wrong, but you don’t know it so you instinctually spin the tale to make yourself look good. It’s you when you discover you’re wrong and retell the story for commiserating purposes or take ownership of your mistake to make your life-learning opportunity into a new story of striving to be good and cool.
The Conclusions We Draw
Once we see the basic story patterns we use to talk about ourselves, once we see how we cast the roles to always give ourselves the stunning lead, what do we do?
Given that being a terrible student made me believe I was a terrible human being, I’ve spent my life trying not to be a terrible human being. As a student that meant trying for better grades, in the real world it means trying to understand the stories I tell myself and others.
Am I telling stories that give others the benefit of the doubt, leaving room for my challengers to be right? Am I telling stories that limit my ability to accept my mistakes and grow from them? Are you?