If anything’s true about the world we live in, it’s that it’s a world of constant change. We’re immersed in a sea of images and narratives engineered to ensnare us in thinking and acting in certain ways (often for other people’s benefit). In the midst of this it becomes really difficult to find the thread of our own stories.
Let’s take a quick look at the importance of story: on a fundamental level, story is an organizing principle that allows us to piece together experiences and events into a meaningful sequence. In his 2008 book, The Political Mind, author George Lakoff (who also co-wrote Metaphors We Live By with Mark Johnson) proposes that most narrative sequences can be mapped to recognizable patterns of roles and events, which he calls “frames.” In the rescue frame, for example, we have the roles of the villain, the victim, and the hero. The villain threatens or harms the victim, the hero challenges the villain, and after some period of struggle and uncertainty, the hero prevails over the villain and the victim is delivered to safety. We’ve seen this frame a gazillion times and yet it’s still enticing. This is in part because each time we witness the playing out of this frame, we’re participating in it ourselves: we’ve all lived through this frame personally, experiencing at least one, probably more than one of the roles. Each time we encounter it in a story, it evokes (i.e. literally reactivates) the very emotions we felt first-hand when we lived through the experience.
On a neural level, the reason why this frame is so gripping is because it engages one of our fundamental biological adaptations: the fight or flight response, which we humans share with all mobile living organisms. When the fight or flight response is initiated, it kicks our nervous system into high gear, increasing heart rate and breathing and pumping cortisol and other stimulating chemicals into the bloodstream, allowing us to maximize our active response (and thus, chances for survival). But the body can only sustain this state for so long before it collapses from exhaustion, which is why the resolution (the defeat of the villain and the rescue of the victim) is so sweet: it allows the body to relax, which is accompanied by the release of happy, calming neurochemicals. The ordeal is over. It’s time for a beer.
Why this diversion into good guy bad guy land? Because one of the vital aspects of the fight or flight response is that it has a fantastic ability to narrow and sharpen our field of attention. All nonessential information fades into the background as our sensory receptors search out and hone in on information and signals that are most likely to contribute to our survival. (This is usually the moment in the movie where the hero/protagonist notices the vent in the ceiling — hark! possible escape…!). This goal then has the effect of hyper-sequencing the nervous system: the body goes into action and organizes itself to achieve the goal.
This process is most effective in life or death situations — the will to live is impressively strong and its sequencing power enables organisms to overcome impressive odds. The same principle applies in less drastic situations, say, when we’re late and are rushing to get somewhere. Reaching the destination is the main organizing principle; all other non-essential data is automatically assigned a lower priority. This is why drivers in a hurry become assholes: their nervous systems are hyper-focused to such an extent that it becomes impossible to run other sequences, such as waiting and allowing other drivers to merge. They’re acting out the proverbial one track mind.
So what does this all have to do with finding the thread of one’s personal story? Here’s the deal: without a narrative driver as an organizing principle, we get lost: we stumble around without a sense of direction; we get distracted by multiple simultaneous threads; we get caught up in other people’s stories; or (my personal favorite), we become Netflix addicts, essentially borrowing other narratives because they help us *feel* purposeful. What we need to do is identify the story we’re living so that we can allow it to organize and sequence our activity.
Here are two suggestions on how to do this:
1) The practical approach: Get really clear about what your goal is. Keep it simple. Break it down into easily achievable mini-steps. (Our brains love accomplishing things. When we “win” at something we get a dopamine hit that makes us want to keep winning.) Choose small steps that are challenging enough to activate your game-self (the milder version of fight/flight) but not so out there that you get overwhelmed or succumb to self-doubt. Also important: find role models–other people who have achieved the goal you’ve set for yourself and study what they did — really break it down step-by-step. This will help your nervous system begin to make sense of the sequence that will get you where you want to go. Try to find ways to embody what they did so that your goal becomes a living, real-life sequence and not just a conceptual idea. Do this enough and you’ll start to gain momentum.
2) The more mythological approach: (This is the idea that inspired this post in the first place.) Ponder this question: what story or narrative do you identify with most strongly? Have you ever read a book or seen a movie and felt down to the bottom of your soul that the protagonist was you? Perhaps you became obsessed with the story or character, saw yourself in his/her shoes, imagined yourself going on his/her journey. Chances are this story–and the frame it represents–is Your Story. (I must credit Craig Chalquist as the originator of this idea. If you haven’t yet taken his Archetypal Myth class at JFK, I highly recommend it.) Go through a similar process with this narrative: break it down, parse it out in pivotal events and moments of transformation. What did the protagonist do to overcome odds? How many times did s/he fail and rise again? What did s/he release / accept / transform that allowed him/her to succeed? You might even map your current situation to the narrative sequence: what scene are you in right now? What happens next in the story that might give you some clue about what you need to do?
(If anyone’s curious, my favorite story is the movie Contact. After I publish this post I’ll be doing my own analysis…)
You might think about combining these two approaches: take one real world example (for me, it’s always Bjork), and one imaginal example (Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway). Let their stories give you clues. Can’t hurt to have more than one angel.
And as you’re doing this, practice letting Your Story become your one-track mind. Not to such an extent that you slack off on other things you need to do, but just enough that it helps filter out the nonessentials. If you’re not sure whether a piece of info is part of your story or not, just contemplate it for a moment: hold whatever it is in your mind’s eye against the backdrop of the fuller narrative. If it doesn’t seem to fit, don’t try to force it, just let it go.
To pick up the theme of collaboration from the last post (it’s central to this whole blog project) let’s not forget, too, that stories always have more than one character: protagonists nearly always have helpers, teachers, friends, and/or companions on the road. Look into your story and see who these characters are (Ellie Arroway has Kent, her friend and fellow astronomer, who happens to be blind (the blind seer) and who has keen insight into her inner spirit, and S.R. Hadden, the mysterious trickster who appears out of nowhere and gives her major clues that bring about quantum leaps on her journey…hmmmm…). Of course she also has detractors, challengers, doubters, and saboteurs. It would be nice if they didn’t exist but they’re necessary players too: without the villian, there wouldn’t be a hero, right?
My dear friends, I am anxious to hear what your story is and where you are in it. Please reply and share!!