There’s no final version of a life story

What we call “I” is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki reminds us that what we know as “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, whether or not we want it to be. We’d like to believe that changes to our identity are under our control, the result of growth and intent. But what happens when we find out that we’re not who we thought we were, when the family story that was built around us and on whose scaffold we grew is wrong?

NPR journalist Alex Wagner, who just wrote a memoir about her family, notes that the beginnings and endings of stories are arbitrary — there’s always something that happened before and more that comes after. And only when we ask questions and go looking will we find the fuller story.

Here was my story: My maternal grandmother ran off with a neighbor shortly before my mother’s second birthday, leaving her husband and six children behind. She had four more children after she left and her first set of children only saw her a few more times. She essentially cut them off.

This was a story I grew up with, a story that I feel I knew from earliest memory. My mother didn’t try to hide it from us or shelter us from it; we knew very clearly from a young age that her mother had left her behind, to be raised by her father and later, a stepmother.

For years, I’ve been interested in genealogy, and have delved deeply into my family history. But this story wasn’t one that I spent much time questioning or looking into. It was “case closed, end of story.” Then along came DNA testing, and with it, some second cousins who were unknown to me.

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So here’s the revised story: All those new second cousins? They are people whose grandparents were siblings of the man my grandmother ran off with. Even when I saw this reality on the screen in front of me, it took several minutes for the realization to sink in that my grandfather was that other man, and that my mother was left behind by both of her parents, not just one of them. The beginning of my mom’s formative story wasn’t when her mother left, it was much earlier.

I keep thinking this shouldn’t affect me much – most of the people involved are dead, I wasn’t that close to the man I thought was my grandfather, and I’m glad that my mother has been spared this truth. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it; it confuses and troubles me in ways I didn’t expect. I want to know more about this person whose DNA I share. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. The same is true for your descendants. You will be present in every cell of their bodies.

If I am a continuation of my grandparents, who am I now? Who were they? We grow up with an identity that is molded by the stories and messages, both subtle and overt, that we receive from our parents and other adults. Sometimes self-perception gets skewed because of identities that are projected onto us (the “smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “troublemaker”). But we have a chance at different points in life to reject those projections and forge a fresh identity based on our own values, beliefs and goals.

And yet, it’s hard to rid ourselves of those early identities. Did my mother’s abandonment stories leave an indelible impression on me? Did that change how I interact with my world? What emotions should I be feeling about those old wrongs? On Psychology Today, Mel Schwartz writes that one’s sense of self should be more like a willow tree than an oak, more flexible than sturdy, ready to accept and bend with the storms of life. So I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors…We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors…We cannot get rid of them…Unconditional acceptance is the first step in opening the door to the miracle of forgiveness.

I used to think that it was my mother’s prerogative to experience these emotions – anger, grief, forgiveness. I’m just beginning to consider my grandparents as people I might want to forgive, people who suffered, and maybe tried to do their best. I will never know what motivated them to do what they did; all I can do now is try to cultivate generosity and compassion toward them, bending like a willow, swinging like a door.

 

 

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Writing is hard. So why do I do it?

Why write? Who do we write for and what does it achieve? Is it the “antidote for loneliness” as Steven Berkoff says, or the “art of discovering what you believe,” as Gustave Flaubert expressed?

I started dwelling on this question a few days ago when a friend mentioned that my blog posts had changed since the 2016 election. She noted that they had become less frequent and perhaps darker, less joyful. I was somewhat surprised because while I notice changes in my writing at turning points in my life, I don’t ever know if others are aware of them. But if, as Meg Rosoff says, “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are,” then it’s natural for such momentous events to hold a mirror to our strongest beliefs and give voice to our most closely held feelings.

Man writingSo why do we write? We write to tell stories, to set the record straight, to express emotions, to clarify our thinking, to discover a path forward, and simply to be heard. Sometimes we just vent, other times we are thoughtful; sometimes we write knowing no one will read it, on other days, we seek as many readers as possible. Usually we have no idea what the effect of writing will be on ourselves or others. Consider Anne Frank, who wrote a diary just for herself, but now millions of people have read it. Writing to “Kitty” probably gave her great solace during her time in hiding, but I’m sure she had no idea how many it would touch.

Writing is a way of rehearsing future action, trying out different ways of thinking and being. Sometimes you start with a vague idea and see where it takes you, learning as you go, making sense of where you are. Studies have shown that people who worry a lot can free up some of that cognitive space by engaging in expressive writing, better enabling themselves to deal with stressful situations. Creating a narrative around emotions has also been shown to protect the heart from stress during divorce. At its best, writing helps us grow.California-June (8)

Why write? Because it is both a discovery and an antidote. Writing shines a bright light on the inner self. We can use it to face fears, to recognize love and hope, to confront hate and anger. Writing provides a pause from all our sensory inputs and gives form to the 50,000 jumbled thoughts we have every day.  Yes, sometimes that illumination takes us to dark places, but it can just as easily show us the way back out.

 

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In this line from “Hamlet”, Shakespeare goes straight to the concept that happiness or unhappiness is all about perspective. Our beliefs color our view of the world. Look at something from a different angle – more importantly, think about it from a new perspective – and it might not bother you at all.

It’s really pretty apropos that a playwright gave us such a useful way to characterize our perception of stress. So much of stress, after all, comes from the stories we tell ourselves about events and the roles in which we cast ourselves. Are you playing the victim, or the victimizer? The hero or the villain? The innocent or the guilty? Sometimes it takes only a slight shift to see ourselves in a different role.ffd6

But the ironic thing about this quote is that the characters were talking about prisons, and thinking of the place they were in (Denmark) as a prison. Nothing imprisons us so much as being unable to see another side of a situation. We get stuck telling the story the same way over and over again, convincing ourselves that it is the “truth”, and not recognizing that someone else’s “truth” might be very different. This way of thinking often traps us when we feel we have been wronged by someone.

Imprisoning ourselves in the story doesn’t make the hurt go away, though. Even though it seems counterintuitive, getting free of the old story and considering a new one can be a lot more healing. Look at what the writer Gregory Maguire did with The Wizard of Oz story. He took a tale that we thought we knew, and knew well, and turned it on its head. The good witch isn’t all good – in fact, she’s downright mean at times. The wicked witch isn’t wicked at all – just misunderstood and discriminated against. Couldn’t the same be possible with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives?

That was one of the exercises I did in a workshop on writing for health last week. Our first assignment was to write about a traumatic experience in our lives, and our feelings about it, from our own point of view. But the next day we were asked to write about the event from a different perspective. The writing was completely different the second time when I considered the other people who were involved in the event. I was able to feel more empathy and compassion for the people I might have “blamed” for the hurt.

I saw something in Yoga Journal a while back about changing your negative “what-ifs” to positive “what-ifs”. So here goes: What if you looked for the silver lining? What if you “walked a mile in another person’s shoes”? What if you forgave someone for hurting you?  What if you told the story another way? What if you decided to play the villain or the fool instead of your chosen role? How would that look and feel to you?

Thich Nhat Hanh has written about roses and garbage that we cannot have one without the other. They are equal, and equally precious. “…we must be careful not to imprison ourselves in concepts. The truth is that everything contains everything else.”

The complete story of any life or any event contains an infinite number of points of view. Each side of the story might hold a valuable truth that could set you free of blaming and on to a path of discovery. The first step is changing the story.

Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”

Stories we tell

Every family has stories – usually a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some stories are told over and over, and others get hidden away like skeletons in the closet. But all the stories shape us and our life stories.

Sometimes I stare at the old photos of my great-grandparents, or my dad with his army buddies, and try to figure out who they were. Were their lives mostly hard work and disappointment, or did they experience joy and possibility? How does the answer to that question explain who I am? Did I just inherit my blue eyes and brown hair from them, or does their legacy also include patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world?

Carl Jung wrote that, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life.” In other words, our perspective can be profoundly shaped by our early experience.

People in my family have been farmers, miners, autoworkers, soldiers, teachers and cooks. One was a blacksmith, one a postmaster, and another a mayor. One person has a library named for him, while others lived and died in anonymity. Their stories include poverty, abandonment, infidelity and suicide, as well as pioneering spirit, public service, loyalty and courage.

While I want to embrace many of the values I inherited from them, such as a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, I sometimes find myself stuck with some of the others, such as a tendency to think small and play it safe – characteristics that probably result from generations who always had to struggle. Can we change our lives enough as adults to establish a broader legacy for our own children? Is it possible to get past the negative self-talk, the family dysfunction, and the habitual patterns of behavior to grow into a more satisfying life while still building on the positive aspects of the past?

Just tuning in and becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, then being able to label them, are good first steps. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

Understanding emotions and managing behavior require us to pay attention to them. Sometimes we are so caught up in daily life that we act and react without thought. Keeping a journal (or writing a blog) can help focus the attention on what we are doing and feeling.  Formally practicing mindfulness can also help develop the ability to slow down and pay more attention to our emotional lives. A mindfulness practice can be as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath for a little while each day. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness that it “enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.”

So perhaps that is the legacy I can give my children: a consciousness of my actions, a smile shared in joy, an awareness of how awesome life is right now. If I can do that for myself, and for them, what stories will they tell?