Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Do we get miserable because bad things happen to us, or do we make ourselves miserable with the stories we tell ourselves about what's happening? The older I get, and the more I observe, the more convinced I become that Hell is a place human beings voluntarily condemn themselves to.

The big eye-opener for me came while watching my emotions careen between extremes one Christmas Eve. Nothing was changing in the real world; there was only my inner narrative flipping between interpretations. Ever since, I've noticed this mental maneuver literally everywhere.

A friend visited yesterday. Ray's 70, and is worried about a lump in his abdomen, so he's getting a CAT scan next week. As he sat sipping beer in my living room, I saw the resignation in his eyes as he mournfully said, "Well, at my age, this is what you have to expect." He was willing himself into decrepitude, but I couldn't help noticing the disparity between the sad story he was telling and his overall youthful vigor. He was perched jauntily on my couch, a picture of vitality, enjoying a terrific German lager. He wasn't old. He wasn't suffering. Nothing was actually wrong! Except, that is, in his internal monologue, where he's another person entirely: old, sick, and pitiful.

The CAT scan may, god forbid, bring bad news. But Ray will remain as youthful and as vigorous as he allows himself to feel. In reality, it won't be until things actually go wrong that anything goes wrong. But Ray's not living in the real world. He's living in Story World. And I realize that's considered completely appropriate. We assume that Story World is a valid place to live, even if the story's horrific and leaves us dejected even though we are, to any neutral observer, feeling fine and simply enjoying a nice beer.

"Hey, Ray!" I interrupted. He looked up, startled, from his woeful reverie. "Here you are!" I pointed out, with a bright smile, "Same as always! It's still you!" He looked startled for a moment, as if woken suddenly from a dream. And he laughed. He got it. He saw what he was building.

Another example. I met a bass player who I hadn't seen for 25 years, and asked how things were. He recounted a horrific tale of hardship, betrayal, and loss. When he was done, he stared into the distance, his face a knot of aggrieved suffering. I felt badly for him; I really did! Just as I pray for Ray's lump! But while he was certain his life had been ruined, I, not bound by the story, noticed that standing next to him in 2013 felt a lot like standing next to him in 1988 (he hadn't been very joyful then, either!). "But, Phil," I urged, "after all that you still are! Still looking out of the same eyes! Here we are, same as ever!" Phil, too, was startled out of his dream for a moment, and saw that the story isn't real. Reality's what's really happening right here, right now.

Final example. My friend Paolo recently had his company nearly ruined by a disreputable accountant. The situation was particularly perilous, because the company's debt was pinned on him, personally (it was the only way he could get credit). Back in December, he'd been at risk of losing everything. We had dinner a few nights ago (at an incongruous Ghanian restaurant in the sprawl of Suffolk County), and Paolo was a basket case, barely able to follow conversation. Every few minutes, he'd randomly utter a deep "oy" from deep in his chest, even though he's not Jewish (everyone turns a little Jewish when things go wrong).

Poor guy, right? But wait. He'd patched the accounting, and was navigating his business back into the clear. If he works hard for a few months - while drawing a nice salary - the business will survive. The worst peril's been avoided, and there's not much to decide or to worry about; just proceed to Point B. In the real world, he's doing fine. But in Story World, he's living a nightmare.

So we have Ray, who's not sick yet, and who may never be sick, but who's talking himself into being old and sick against all evidence. He's pre-suffering. And we have Phil and Paolo post-suffering, though their lives are completely normal. The question is: if you shave off the pre-suffering and the post-suffering - if you drop the storytelling - how much suffering was ever necessary?

Very little. The suffering is in the stories we tell ourselves. When bona-fide bad stuff happens, you don't suffer. There's no time. You deal with the problem, as best you can. If someone started shooting a gun in your room right now, your impulse wouldn't be to bemoan your lot in life. You'd be diving under your chair! Problems spur action. The suffering, which is optional, comes later. The mind always lags behind reality, and sometimes gets stuck there.

Pain in life is a given. And results seldom align with expectations. But pain is pain, and expectations were whimsical in the first place. Suffering's different. It's entirely in the storytelling. Consider my favorite book title: "What's Wrong with Right Now...Unless You Think About It?"

Old Zen Joke (visualize accompanying koto music):
Two monks were traveling together, an older monk and a younger monk. They noticed a young woman at the edge of a stream, afraid to cross. The older monk picked her up, carried her across the stream and put her down safely on the other side. The younger monk was astonished, but he didn't say anything until miles later. "Why did you carry that woman across the stream? Monks aren't supposed to touch any member of the opposite sex." said the younger monk. The older monk replied "I left her at the edge of the river, are you still carrying her?"

Old Jewish Joke (visualize a thick Yiddish accent):
Sol and Shmuel are riding a train. Sol keeps moaning, "Boy, am I thirsty." He does this mile after mile, driving Shmuel crazy. Finally, Shmuel jumps off the train at the next stop, returning with a soda which he hands to Sol, telling him "Here! Drink, for gods sake!" For the next mile or so, Sol is quiet. But then he starts in again: "Boy, was I thirsty..."

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