I’ve made it a habit to find out what drives someone, the first time we meet. I find that knowing this reveals more about a person than politics, religion or any of the normal things people use to distinguish themselves.
At first, it surprised me how much of a person can be summarized, once you know the answer to that question. Sometimes you’ll even understand the person better than they do themselves. The person who is driven by ambition, but complains of stress, will never really stop working.
The reason, I believe, is that we become the story we tell ourselves. Not because of fate, or self-determination, but because we filter the future and edit the past to fit our preferred narrative.
Perhaps for all the time we spend talking about success or trying to design the perfect lifestyle, we miss a more powerful force that guides our life—the story we tell ourselves every day about it.
You Can Change the Past
No, time travel doesn’t exist. But you don’t need a DeLorean to alter the past, we change our past all the time. In fact, we can’t not alter our past.
Science has overturned the view of memory being a static, unchanging photograph. Instead, they’ve shown that the act of remembering changes our memories. Unlike pristine transcripts of our lives, we warp and shift them each time we remember.
In Proust Was a Neuroscientist , Jonah Leher describes a study where rats were taught to associate a shock with noise:
“But Nader, LeDoux and Shafe took this simple experiment one step further. First, they made sure the rats had a strong memory associating the schock witht he noise. … But what made their experiment different was its timing. Instead of interrupting the process of making a memory, they interrupted the process of remembering a memory, injecting the noxious chemical at the exact moment the rats were recalling what the noise meant. The long-term memory should exist independently of its recall. … After the poison is flushed out, the rats should remember their fear.”
“But this isn’t what happened. When Nader and his group blocked the rats from remembering their fearful memory, the original memory trace also disappeared.” [emphasis mine]
Leher concludes by stating, “The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”
In this view, we change our past all the time. It’s as if, each time we remember, we are not consulting a photograph, but re-painting a scene. We emphasize, replay and exaggerate the details that fit the story we tell ourselves, and omit any that don’t.
We Think in Stories
The issue doesn’t just extend to corrupted memory. Our present is dominated by story as well. I would go so far as to say we think and reason in terms of a narrative.
It’s not hard to see why this is true. Just think of primitive religions and their explanations for thunder, lightning or seasons. To us, the idea that seasons are caused by a goddess’ sadness at her daughter staying in Hades, is a little silly.
Some might argue that early religious interpretations were from people wanting to believe, needing reassurance in an otherwise toilsome life. I don’t really agree with this interpretation, as supernatural forces were just as often evil and misanthropic as they were comforting.
Perhaps a better explanation for Zeus’ lightning or Apollo’s chariot of the Sun, is that people reason via stories. It took years of scientific discipline to overcome this natural tendency to come up with narrative explanations. Our native language isn’t the objective world, but the fictional one of stories.
Someone once told me that, “the greatest truths are in fiction.” The point was meant to be profound, contrasting the factual nature of nonfiction books, to the deeper truths underlying fiction.
It’s hard to understand why this statement feels true. Certainly any deep philosophical argument made in a work of fiction has also been argued explicitly in a non-fiction work. How then, expressing the same truth, could one be “greater” than the other? I suspect the reason is that story is our native language, and in hearing a philosophical argument with evidence and rhetoric, we are merely listening to a translation from the way we understand the world.
If our thinking and reasoning are done in story, then it seems our future decisions are ultimately guided by the most important story—the one we tell ourselves. Like Zeus’ thunderbolt or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we explain ourselves through story.
Rewriting the Story
Our past is warped and our present viewed through the story we tell ourselves. What does this mean for living well?
First, as important as the narrative is, it’s not clear to me that it’s easy to change. To a certain extent, I feel our identity becomes inseparable from the story we keep repeating. Even if it is a fiction, it’s a powerful one, rewriting the past and sculpting our decisions for the future.
I guess this is why I’d like to have more empathy for other people. The truth is, you don’t know the narrative that is shaping their life. Too often I hear trite advice to people who have real problems: Fat? Stop eating so much! Poor? Don’t spend so much money! Lonely? Go out and meet people!
Accurate, but not always helpful. If the narrative of your life isn’t one where the protagonist triumphs in the end, I can imagine why it would be difficult to change, even when the solution seems obvious to an outsider.
Second, it’s important to remember that it is a fiction. Life is not a story, even if we warp our perception to believe it is. If I scan through old journal entries, there isn’t the same definable plot arc that I sense from my memory. Just a jumble of random thoughts, stochastic wobbles of happiness and frustration.
Perhaps reminding ourselves of this essential fiction is a way to change it. After all, if you are a literal believer in your own story, you can’t rewrite it. Recognizing that it’s a fiction, albeit a necessary one, gives you the flexibility to rewrite the story.
Past pains can be rewritten as battles won, not scars collected. Nostalgia can be enjoyed without giving up anticipation of the future. Maybe if we can outgrow the stories we’ve told ourselves, we can become something different.