By Minda Garr
Ancient traditions had story-tellers. Before there was written language, tradition and history were passed along by those in the tribe whose role it was to be responsible for the passing on of the collective. Today, we read stories in books and online, and anyone can choose to become their teller. But apart from the stories of the collective, we each have our own individual story. We each have our roots, our biography, and the unique events of our lives. In addition, we have the story we tell ourselves that informs the way we live our lives. We all continually tell our story to ourselves and others, and in the telling, we are writing the script of our lives.
What do I mean when I suggest that we are writing the script of our lives? My father, z”l, told me when he was 60, “I am a young man. See my friend over there, we’re the same age, but he is old.” And indeed, as they aged, my father’s friend rapidly became an old man, while my father maintained a relatively youthful outlook on himself and life. His greatest delight was when people thought he was much younger than he was. And even when he was old and infirm, he still looked younger than his chronological age. The story he told to define himself as he aged was “I am a young man.”
Do we create our reality, or does it create who we are?
Clearly, things happen in life over which we have no control. We are often in the position of responding to life’s events. Clichés abound, such as “mind over matter” or “we are what we think we are”. It sounds as if it might work, until it doesn’t. So what do I mean?
There are events in life over which it seems we have no choice. Even if we believe in the mind-body connection, it is unhelpful to blame ourselves if we become sick, thinking that if we only had the right thoughts or beliefs we would still be well. Whether there is truth in that approach or not, we do not want to treat ourselves as victims, berating ourselves for becoming ill.
Where we do have a choice is in how we respond to life’s events. Do we look at life with gratitude for what we have, or do we focus on what is missing in our lives? If we have suffered a loss, do we allow the loss to continually define our lives, even many years later, or does it become an unfortunate aspect of life that has had an impact on us? If we have an illness, do we become the illness or is it something we are coping with as best as possible?
Recently, I’ve been considering this as we have met frequently with family and friends. As we get older, we are subject to a natural aging process. There are those for whom this process becomes their story. They talk incessantly about the increased aches and pains, the slowing down, and how they accomplish so much less than they used to. They fit right into the stereotype referred to in so many jokes about aging. And yet, others of the same age remain vibrant, and conversation with them is interesting and engaging. Most likely they have the same aches, and the same frustration with slowing down. But they haven’t let their age define them by making it their story. What defines them is their interests, knowledge, opinions, and so much more.
When I frequently tell the story of illness, I am likely to be very aware of what ails me. When I tell the story of what inspires me, what excites me, what engages my attention, and what I am grateful for, I am likely to feel positive with a sense of well- being. I know several people struggling on a daily basis with severe illness, who project to those around them a sense of optimism and hope. That is the story they have chosen to tell, and it is the story that they will leave behind, for those who loved them to continue to tell. Those are the stories that they have chosen to share, and that impact daily on the quality of their lives. Although we may not be able to influence the circumstances of our lives, we can choose what we want our experience to be, and how we want others to experience us. And that is our story.