Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Stories of Our Lives

The sun hadn’t yet pulled itself up over the eastern hills when I was walking down College Avenue in Fayetteville. I wore my jacket with the hood up to keep the 45-degree air out of my ears, but my hands were cold. I could not tuck them into my pockets because I needed them to balance as I trekked across uneven grass and rocks and asphalt driveways. There was no sidewalk along this part of the main drag. Cars swished past, only a couple of yards to my right.
I had dropped off my car to be washed and detailed, and I figured I could start walking back to get some exercise. My son would pick me up in about 20 minutes and drive me the rest of the way home.
As I walked I thought about the drivers passing me, and I wondered what kind of figure I cut: a solitary middle-aged, hooded woman in blue jeans. Would they wonder why I had no car? Would they suspect I was homeless? Would they think I had no family? Why would I be out walking before dawn?
I thought about all the times I drive College Avenue and make up stories about the people I see out walking. If they have a backpack and are heavily clothed, I guess they are homeless, carrying all of their possessions. If they are lugging grocery bags, I assume they have no car. If there’s a fast-food cup in their hands, I figure they are on break from work nearby. No one walks this route for exercise, so that’s never part of the stories I make up about the people I see.
Stories. It’s what we human beings love to create: tales about life – our own and others. It’s why we are attracted to soap operas and movies. It’s why we buy the tabloids at the supermarket checkouts. It’s why we listen to talk shows on the radio and watch reality shows on television.
There’s this place inside us that relishes stories, and while I don’t have a problem with story telling, too often the stories end up as fodder for our egos, which use them as proof that we are better or worse than the other guy. Even worse, though, is when we start believing these stories are the truth, especially if what we’ve written is a sad story. As soon as I write a sad story and start identifying with it, I begin to spiral downward emotionally, and guess what? My story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as I get more depressed, I find more reasons to be sad and I attract others who are sad as well. Misery loves company.
But so does happiness and joy. And that’s the truth of our universe: the law of attraction, or like begets like. So if I’m going to make up stories, why not make up happy ones?
My daughter and her boyfriend broke up recently, and she’s written a sad story for herself about this. We all do this sometimes. At my place in life (i.e. older!), it’s easier to see this is a sad story of her own creation. Yes, she hurts. I honor that. But she’s trying to write a story that makes this one act a theme of her life: No one will ever love her the way she wants to be loved. Now that’s a sad story. But it’s not the truth.
More importantly, we can always choose to rewrite our stories. For example, my daughter and her boyfriend broke up and now she knows that her heart will fit more perfectly with someone else on down the line. And isn’t it good that she has this time to reflect on how beautiful the spring is, how much she loves her job, how fun it is to decorate her new apartment – all without the distraction of a long-distance relationship? And doesn’t this give her the space to figure out why she feels sad so much of the time, and to seek instead little pockets of happiness? Little pockets like the light scent of a butter-yellow jonquil blooming in the grass, the warm sun on her back as she rides her bike, the sweet taste of a frothy Frappuccino, the toothy grin on her niece’s face in the picture taped to her computer.
My daughter is not unlike most of us who have explored deep caves of pain. But even in these places, we can mine little gems of joy. And when we do – when we hold these sparkling pieces of now – we find ourselves at a starting point again. We can choose to write new stories. And if we do, let’s end them with “happily ever after.”