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Posts Tagged ‘stories’

I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.

But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?

And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?

I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:

My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.

But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.

So what are my fundamental stories?

I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.

Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.

I recognize my experience as part of my identity.

For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.

But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?

Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.

I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.

Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.

I determine for myself who I am.

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I hung up pictures in my apartment this weekend, the last step of turning it into a home.

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A friend told me that what made my place into a home was not merely the items it contains, but the deliberation with which the items have been placed.

The items, of course, are important as well, but I’m the only one who knows the complete story they tell.

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The tapestry from Thailand hangs over the couch. I bargained for it in the Night Market in Chiang Mai, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to haggle. But I wanted this tapestry for my apartment, and I was alone, and I launched into the fray, emerging with this beautiful piece of art.

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Part of home.

Part of home.

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The hand-woven red rug from Egypt lies untidily on the carpet in front of the TV.  Egypt, my first and so far only foray into Africa. I wrote much of The Academy of Forgetting on this rug.

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The dragons pose on either side of the TV. I brought one home from Cornwall when I was in college, a symbol of my new-found resolve and courage.

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A stuffed elephant holding a big heart, having improbably survived a host of purges, has made a new home for itself among my travel books. I thought it was cheesy when I received it years and years ago as a Valentine’s Day present, and I still think it’s ridiculous, and yet there it sits.

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A framed photo of Nala. Books and more books and sheet music. A warm soft blanket in a welcoming heap on the couch. A painting from my childhood hung over the console: if you look closely, you can see where the artist painted in my dog Muffin, waiting under the tree for the picture me to get out of the picture schoolhouse. Sparkly coasters from last summer in France scattered across two tables. The board game bookshelf, almost completely filled. Aprons in an untidy heap on top of the refrigerator, along with the cookbook filled with cookie recipes and an empty cookie tin from Christmastime, red and green and yellow.

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I could walk you around my house, and I could touch each item, and I could tell you what it means to me. Souvenir means to remember. It’s not the items that matter; it’s the memories they allow me to keep. It’s the stories they whisper almost inaudibly about who I am and where I’ve come from.

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Seth Godin said something wise the other day:

“The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation.”

His suggestion for dealing with this kind of disagreement? To stop assuming the other person is ignorant or stupid or doesn’t get it, and instead focus on telling compelling stories. Stories, I’m assuming, that encourage empathy, that maybe crack open the door to give a glimpse of another worldview in a sympathetic way.

We’re telling stories all the time in our culture. We tell stories about the running of our government (politics). We tell stories to convince each other to buy something (advertising). We tell stories about how we do our jobs (annual reviews). We tell stories about how to live life (philosophy, child-rearing, religion). We tell stories about how the world works (mythology, pop science).

Photo Credit: kygp via Compfight cc

I was thinking about a question on OkCupid asking whether you have a problem with racist jokes. My answer was yes, I do; but plenty of people answer that racist jokes aren’t a big deal. I’ve never been a big fan of racist jokes; I don’t usually find them terribly funny. However, I might have once agreed that maybe they weren’t a big deal.

But then I read a lot of stories that showed me how racist jokes can cause harm, how they perpetuate the status quo of privilege and racism, and how they tangibly affect real people. And because of those stories and the empathy they caused me to feel, I notice these jokes and I feel uncomfortable. And yes, I do have a problem with them. My worldview changed. So now for me, those jokes ARE a big deal.

A worldview doesn’t always need to change dramatically. Sometimes it’s enough to recognize other experiences, even if you’ve never had them yourself. Even if you don’t agree. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever agree. The respect of recognition goes a long way to allowing a dialogue to take place.

The bedrock of empathy is the idea that however different our worldviews may be, we are all human beings. We all suffer, and we all want to be loved. Sometimes stories are the key to reminding each other of this truth.

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