Considering stories

Trigger warning! This post discusses traumatic situations (including rape) and may be triggering for some readers. While no specific situation is mentioned and no graphic details are described, if this is a difficult topic for you, please treat yourself with loving-kindness and skip this post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately—both the stories we tell ourselves and the way we treat the stories we tell each other. These two trains of thought started from different places but wound up colliding somewhere along the way leaving me with a great deal of (what appears to be) conflicting opinion jumbled up together in my mind.

The first train of thought is one that I’ve been exploring for a while as I’ve looked at the way that the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives affect our experience of our lives. I am a big fan of The Work of Byron Katie and her approach to questioning whether the stories we tell ourselves are true. Her process leads to a detachment from the stories and the freedom to let go of stories that don’t serve us and create new stories that do. I do find that the more I am willing to become aware of the stories I am telling myself and am able to challenge those stories, the more my perception and experience of my life is shifting for the better. This is both simple and profound work to engage in. I’ve got a long way to go with this, but I have found that there is a lot of truth to the idea that we create our experience of our lives through our stories about it.

The second train of thought arose in response to the political conversation currently happening around the idea of “legitimate rape.” I don’t really want to get into a political conversation here, but what caught my attention (that’s relevant to this topic) is the fact that this conversation comes from a similar vein of thought to what I just mentioned, except that it now involves more than one person’s story about a given experience. According to this line of thinking, it doesn’t matter if the rape victim’s story is one of rape; it only matters what story others put upon her experience that determines whether it is “legitimately” rape. The difference in this case is that we have moved from the situation where the person in question is affected by her story about what has happened to her into a place where other people (who weren’t even present at the time) are the ones who are dictating the story that is to be considered the “right” one that will affect her choices. Now she is affected both by the story she tells herself and by the story that others choose to tell.

And this led me to the collision. While I don’t believe that Byron Katie or those who support her work would advocate this in any way, shape, or form, I do see the potential for that Work to be used against a rape victim (or other victims of tragic circumstances). The idea that our story about our life affects our experience can easily be twisted into a form of claiming that the victim is just making up a “story” about what happened that is no more valid that anyone else’s story about what happened (including those of government officials who weren’t even there). It also runs the risk of saying that the only reason that she is suffering from being raped is that she is choosing to define it as rape, and that comes way too close to the blaming the rape victim mentality that infuriates me.

A recent blog post by Elizabeth Drescher called Don’t Fence Me In in which she talks about how some of the inspirational postings she sees on Facebook and Twitter that seem to veer in this direction of blaming people for their own suffering through the promulgation of the idea that its only their thinking causing it let me know that I’m not alone in this discomfort. Are children starving from famine suffering only because they are choosing to believe they should have enough to eat? I don’t think so. There are so many other traumas in life—abuse, war, death of loved ones, extreme poverty, natural disasters—that are bigger than just the victims choosing to tell themselves a story that causes suffering.

And yet, I know from my own experience that my story does make a radical difference in how I experience something and how I react to it. I am aware of the way that people define the difference between pain and suffering—pain is the inevitable result of trauma, but suffering comes only through the stories we tell ourselves about the pain—and I know that’s how many would differentiate between the two. I even understand this distinction and can see the validity of the point.

But I still see a risk of these kinds of ideas being misused in ways that undermine people’s actual experience (like the rape victim situation above) by dismissing them as mere stories they are choosing to believe. I still see a risk of this thinking being used to blame to the victim for their pain or suffering. I still see a risk of these kinds of platitudes causing more pain to hurting people rather than being helpful.

How do we make good use of this tool for actively questioning and challenging our own stories to improve our own lives without it becoming a weapon that is used against others to cause more pain in their lives? How do we find the blessing in this while still avoiding the risk?

I don’t have any answers to any of these questions, but as I work with my own stories and I listen to the national debates, I am pondering these questions a great deal.

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.