The Most Important Story

We humans. We love to tell stories. Maybe we have to tell stories.

I love stories, especially books. I read as much as I possibly can. These days, that’s not a lot. One or two books a month, three if I’m on a roll. I used to blaze through books in one or two days, always hungry for the next. I am attempting to retain and cultivate my attention after the ravages of pregnancy and newborn care, and I may never again have the kind of time I had as a bored child devouring the entire YA and adult science fiction sections of the library.

Consuming stories fuels their creation. I used to tell stories to myself, writing Star Wars fan fiction on a computer as a 12 year old kid wishing and imagining that she could be someone else. I learned, as an older child, to tell stories out loud, to connect with people and to pull more stories out of them.

I’ve realized that I tell myself a story about myself and who I am today, and that present self is the inevitable closure of the narrative that form unbidden in my mind. In my mind, I am who I am today because I experienced these five (let’s say) critical story arcs, crucibles of personality, and personal crises. But the amount of things I’ve experienced in my life – the perceptions available to me, the interactions with others, and the emotions I’ve felt – these are countless. I will have countless more, and be changed in endless unimaginable ways. I must sort through all this data to make sense of my life so far. I do the same with my family and friends. I think I understand the Most Important Things to know about them – the things that make them comprehensible to me as people. But their versions of those Most Important Things are undoubtedly different from mine.

I think we are all telling stories, all the time, to one another and to ourselves. Our perception of current events fits into that story that we are telling ourselves, and our reaction to those events depends solely on the meaning we give them within that story. It is important to remind ourselves that our version of the story is necessarily incomplete, and it is not necessarily constructed with accurate information. When we talk with others about current events, our feelings about them, or what we think world leaders ought to do, we can experience the influence of others’ stories on our own as our opinions slightly shift, or our perspectives slightly expand to account for new facts or a new, valuable perspective. Or we may feel the need to shore up our perception against theirs, if the discussion shows us holes or inconsistencies in our stories. (If it’s any good as a conversation, that is.)

One of the reasons social media is so maddening is that it requires that a personal, verbal storytelling style – what you might use to talk to your best friend or work acquaintance about what’s happening in Syria – be paired with the open-ended proclamations and assertions of a medium written for publication. The stories that we tell ourselves about our shared lives and experiences overlap and clash with those of our family, friends, and acquaintances. Seeing our thoughts and stories in print like this does not have the softness of a conversation.  It commits us to a hardened moral judgment: my story is right.

Some argue that social media is just information, most of it useless. Maria Popova talks about this in her article on Brain Pickings, her site, called “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers”:

“Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models ‘competing for our loyalty and attention’:

‘There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.’”

Sontag argues that television presents information, fragmented by commercials and never-ending plots, while novels present stories. Popova likens this to the commercial internet today.

Certainly experiencing other people’s stories is a different experience entirely when it happens on social media or on television, disrupted as those media are by commercial interests and curtailed by limits on available time and space. But they are stories, clashing and overlapping and poorly told, in many cases, but narratives with a purpose in the telling, nonetheless. I think we as humans are incapable of presenting or receiving information without narrative. If there isn’t one there, we make one up. We process all data into stories, and we perceive a coherent plot arc where there is none. We assume that there is a shared story, but every person’s experience and perception of that story is different, because so much is happening at once.

As Sontag says (from Popova’s article),

“To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”

I would argue that we all have the moral and ethical responsibility that Sontag bestows upon novelists: to make a choice about the stories we disseminate into the world. Words – particularly written words – are endlessly powerful. Our position in history grants us the unprecedented platform to commit our words to print before an audience of peers. If we want to write – and I assert that even a short social media post counts – we need to start with the wisdom and humility required to stretch the nets of our attention, to recognize the weighty moral judgment we are making by writing this story, and not that story. Be mindful with our attention, and be aware that we can never mind everything, all at once – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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“No satisfaction whatever at any time”

“The work wasn’t good enough. All changed, all passed. There was no way of ensuring lasting beauty. Verily, I wrote in water and judging my work with a dreadful dispassionate vision, perhaps it was as well. I spoke to Martha Graham on the pavement outside of Schrafft’s restaurant. She bowed her head and looked burningly into my face. She spoke from a life’s effort. I went home and wrote down what she said:

‘There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open….’

‘But,’ I said, ‘when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.’

‘No artist is pleased.’

‘But then there is no satisfaction?’

‘No satisfaction whatever at any time,’ she cried passionately. ‘There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.’”

-Agnes de Mille, from Dance to the Piper

 

It comes as a feeling of heat, a catch in the moment inside of a thought, telling me to write this down. I must remember this, I think. I will remember when I get out of the shower, or stop driving, or wake up in the morning. I think, I can’t stop now to write this down. Don’t you tell me what to do.

But I will not remember if I do not get out of bed, stop the car, jump out of the shower, start writing. If I do not write it down, it is lost forever. It is endlessly frustrating. I have spent evenings and days enslaved to these hot thoughts, writing and writing endlessly, because I had to get it out. But it is never good enough, and I never put it out into the world. Then, I have spent nights dreaming and turning restlessly, refusing to write it down, burned by the frustration of the gap between what I see in my mind’s eye and my ability to execute what I see. And these nights are just as frustrating.

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Placebo

I’m at the rock climbing gym, and I have decided to climb a 5.11 route.* I know that it is too hard for me. I think about the distinctions in the grades as they were described by a seasoned 5.13 climber I met: “5.7s and 5.8s are beginner climbs. Most people can climb them within days,** once they have the hang of the movements involved. 5.9s and 5.10s are intermediate: your technique needs to be developed, and you need to have developed some finger and upper body strength. 5.11s and 5.12s are impossible: you must cling to imaginary holds and float up the wall on sheer strength of will. Harder than that? Unimaginable. You must have suction cups on your fingers.” And yet he does it, and others do it, all the time.

If he says that even good climbers think these climbs are impossible and the holds imaginary, I decide that I will just use my imagination. I will imagine, as I place my fingers on hilariously tiny ledges – touching them with half of the first pad on three fingertips on each hand, I snort incredulously – and my feet on what feel like almost imperceptible nubs of plastic, that this scant purchase is enough to hold me on the wall. It will even let me push farther up. I imagine that it is enough, and I find that I am still there, still clinging to these impossible holds, but my weight is starting to hurt my fingers. Hardly daring to breathe, I imagine that I can take one hand off and reach the next hold. I imagine that the subsequent pinching motion I must make with my thumb and first two fingers is enough to pull me to the next hold, and suddenly I am there. Again, again. I stop thinking and only feel the next and the next and the next move. I am halfway up the wall. I cannot believe it. I look around and think, “This is impossible,” and as I snap back into reality, I fall.

***

Here’s a thing: placebos work. When researchers give a control group a placebo in clinical studies, some of those people get better. More people given a placebo get better than a control group given nothing. This effect – the Placebo effect – has been thoroughly established and is not fully understood. What is a placebo? It’s nothing, but it does something. How?

A placebo makes people believe that they are taking something that will make them better. It seems that what is working is that belief itself. A general presumption among the public is that if the illness got better from nothing other than belief, it wasn’t a “real” illness to begin with; that person simply wasn’t “really” sick. But what makes an illness real? They had to have been experiencing symptoms and received a diagnosis to enter the study. But the placebo still worked – or, people are just spontaneously getting better more often with a placebo than with nothing at all. Possible, but unlikely.

I would argue, however, that it’s wrong-headed to discount the seriousness of the illness in those people; instead, we ought to look at the power the mind exerts over the physical body. More than that, we need to be clear that the mind is a part of the physical body. In our exceedingly digital and abstract society, we tend to look at the mind as the objective observer of the body and its experience, but that, in fact, is not fully possible. Not only can perception change reality within the body (as with a placebo, in some cases), but the body can also influence the mind. There are a number of hypothesis currently being researched on the role that, for example, the microbiota living in the digestive system plays in the development of mental health issues. In that way, diet may directly influence mental health. Chronic pain linked to orthopedic injury is known to be linked to depression, so much so that anti-depressants are part of the standard, accepted treatment plan for long-term pain. The acts of smiling and forced laughter are linked to noticeable improvements in mood. The mind-body connection is prolifically researched and still not fully understood, but it could be that we must move away from the idea of a mind-body connection and instead explore why we ever thought they were separate entities at all. Perhaps when a mind-body disconnect occurs, it is a prime opportunity for new pathologies to bloom and multiply.

***

A common practice in sports psychology is to counsel athletes to spend time visualizing a particular move successfully from start to finish. It’s very common in rock climbing, because often, climbers will work on a single route for dozens or even hundreds of attempts before completing the route without falling (a “send”). When the athlete visualizes the move, they are actually activating motor cortex in their brain – the same part of the brain that is activated in order to physically complete the move. Similarly, as this article by Jim Lohr in Scientific American states, “Studies have shown that the same brain regions become active when a person performs a task and when a person observes someone carrying out a task.” Watching someone else successfully complete an unfamiliar movement may allow us to complete the same movement.

As your motor cortex “learns” a movement, it becomes less conscious and more automated. This is commonly referred to as “muscle memory.” It’s what makes people better at sports and anything else they do. And it can be developed by something as simple as thinking about your move – just imagining it.

***

I am not claiming that a drug should not have to display a stronger and more predictable effect than a placebo to be considered useful. I’m a natural skeptic – or at least a trained one (as my sister and I always remind each other, our father always taught us to “Believe half of what you read and none of what you hear” and “Consider the source”). So I am not in a rush to put reactive substances into my body without good cause. Instead, I want to reframe my perspective: to honor the physicality of my thoughts and feelings, as well as the mental effects of felt physical sensations. I believe I’ve found a lot of health and strength in that mindset – even if that belief is just a placebo.

*A note on the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS): Just like standard versus metric measurements, no one uses YDS to grade climbs outside of the United States. The original Yosemite system included a range of graded inclines from 1.0 (a flat path) to 4.9 (a harder, exposed scramble – scrambles are generally now graded class II-IV, which roughly correspond to YDS grades). The 5.0 grade is more or less vertical and requires the protection of a rope in the case of a fall, but climbing anything up to 5.5 is about the difficulty of climbing a ladder. If you go to a climbing gym, you’ll start on 5.5s and 5.6s to get a grasp on the movements required in climbing.

If you’re into bouldering…well, I can’t help you, bro.

**It took me something like a year to climb a 5.8, so.

A dubious luxury

Frustrated. Furious. Livid. My face and neck turned red. Stewed in it until I could feel the smoke curling out of my ears. Slammed my keys on the counter, breaking off a key fob with a clean snap. Flung a box across the living room. Screamed wordlessly to no one.

That day may have been worse than normal, but I get angry most days. It’s just so common that something happens that I judge “worthy” of anger. Whether a car cuts me off in traffic, I get a bill for back taxes from the IRS, a coworker sends me a passive-aggressive email, a strange man makes threatening comments to me on the street, or a grocery store cashier judges my parenting skills, I would rather be angry than feel the tiny cuts of helplessness, hurt, shame, and fear.

And besides, I like being angry.

I suspect that we all do, really. I know that when I let anger take over, I don’t have to sit with hurt or disappointment or fear. The quiet, broken-heart sadness and gut-wrenching helplessness of those emotions is consumed with the hot, righteous fire of indignation. It feels strong and active and in control. It feels both blameless and powerful.

Yesterday, when I finally let myself feel what was underneath the rage, it sucked. A lot. I felt hurt and embarrassed. I emailed a friend, writing, “I feel like sometimes I am just here for someone to blame.”

Hurt pride is my greatest anger trigger. It causes me to puff up to try to save face, to ice people out with haughty and condescending comments simultaneously crafted to cut them to size and absolve me.

I’m trying to be abundantly clear about this. I don’t consider myself a patient person.

Thinking of those comments afterwards, fruitlessly trying to glue my key fob back together, opening the box in hopes that its contents survived my less-than-delicate handling, I recognize that this is not ideal. But at least no one saw me doing those things, I tell myself. At least I waited until I was alone.

Anger is a coping mechanism, an altered state of consciousness. It’s intoxicating and blinding. It impairs judgment. I don’t expect myself not to feel it, and I know I will turn to it on occasion when I can’t bear to feel the painful emotion underneath. It’s an endogenous mind-altering substance – my brain produces it, whether I intend it or not.

All that is to say: it’s just an emotion. I guess I’m still learning how to deal with my own emotions and those of others. In the past, when I have been angry, or felt the anger of others coming in my direction, I just allowed it to overtake me, and then I distracted myself as best as I could.

But in my obsession with research and doing things the right way, I’ve learned a bit about how to deal with the emotions of my toddler. You see, two-year-old brains are right in the midst of developing their prefrontal cortex, which manages executive function. Executive function includes working memory, perspective taking (empathy), pre-planning, reasoning, and inhibitory control (for example, not hitting someone that you really want to hit). A toddler’s neural networks are undergoing huge reductions in size as they consolidate in order to allow for complex cognitive processing. When kids are going through this stage of development, the more they use their executive function, the more those related connections are preserved and the more robustly they develop. (A great book for parents on helping your child develop executive function is Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky.) Humans go through another similar stage of neural connectivity “pruning” during the teenage years, which might explain some of the similarities between toddlers and teens.

As a result of this developmental research, I know that he is not yet able to control his emotional expression – he is learning right now. I am very intentional about responding to his emotion with full permissiveness and validation while simultaneously curtailing his behavior with strict limits and setting age-appropriate expectations for self-control. By modeling empathy and helping him understand and label what he is feeling, I want to help him learn to identify his emotions, learn appropriate expressions for those emotions, and to control his resulting behavior. I want him to be able to empathize with others. I want him to be, in short, a fully functioning human being.

I have to say, I have been shocked on numerous occasions by how generous and validating I can be with his anger, and simultaneously, how cold and thoughtless I can be towards my own anger, or even anger in other loved ones.

Maybe my son will be better at it than I am.

“You are angry,” I say quietly, as he wails in frustration. “That didn’t seem fair to you. It makes you feel bad that I am not letting you throw my hat in the trash can.” Amazingly, I don’t laugh at his tiny rage. This time.

“I am MAD!” he yells. “Raaawwwwr!”

I ask him to take a few deep breaths and sing the “mad” song I stole from Daniel Tiger. “If you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to four.

“It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to hurt people,” I continue calmly. “You can be angry, and you can yell or hit a pillow, but you cannot hit me.” He looks at me and takes a few exaggerated deep breaths in sync with my own, then slides off my lap and finds a new toy to play with. I take a few extra deep breaths. This is not the first time this scene played out today, and I am sure it will not be the last.

Suddenly, my mind brings up images of a recent fight, words spoken. I did not try to understand the other person’s anger. I responded, knee-jerk, with my own anger, my own agenda. It comes to me, unanticipated and unbidden: the other person’s perspective on the situation. I didn’t hit him, because I’m not two, but I also wasn’t kind. I did hurt him.

I think about when I was trashing my belongings earlier. What led to that outburst? I tried to deny how I felt about something until finally I lost control. I failed to acknowledge my own emotions. “I was angry. I didn’t like how that person treated me. I felt hurt and vulnerable.” I immediately feel just a little bit better – just a little more seen, if only by myself.

I’ve decided, and I hope it causes no one offense, that the way to interact with the world is to act as if everyone in it is a toddler. That’s the right takeaway, isn’t it?