Stories: The Reality Distortion Devices

“The trick and the beauty of language is that it seems to order the whole universe, misleading us into believing that we live in sight of a rational space, a possible harmony. But if words distance us from the present, so we never quite seize the reality of things, they make an absolute fiction of the past. Now, when I look back, I remember a different world: what must have seemed random and chaotic at the time appears perfectly logical as I tell it, invested with a clarity that even suggests a purpose, a meaning to life.” – John Burnside ‘The Dumb House’

Looking at our past we connect the random occurrences linearly as if our lives followed a logical course. We view it as this happened, and then I did this, which lead to this, and I went there, and that’s how I got here. Yet that’s not what happens. We leave out a whole lot of randomness and chaos. Simply because we can’t comprehend it all. We are little humans in a infinitely big multiverse. So we tell stories. 

We all tell stories. Stories order our chaotic world. They give us a sense of control. Allowing us to navigate the world as if things make sense most of the time. We tell a story about our life, specific events, even about other people. We can’t help but tell them because our minds are a meaning-making machine. They create meaning by automatically weaving narratives. These are stories.

Meet Jimothy. He recently applied for a job and he thinks he’s going to get it. He believes the job is meant for him and nature is giving him signs. He attributes arbitrary meaning to the event. 

Now imagine Jimothy gets the job. He’s going to believe more deeply that a higher power was involved in getting the job, but even if he doesn’t he’d spin another story that it wasn’t meant to be. It’s what people do all the time. No matter how events turn out there’s always a convenient narrative to tell that makes sense of things. Although, the narratives we create aren’t always helpful. 

It’s important to be cautious when telling stories they can be harmful. If Jimothy doesn’t get the job and instead of telling the story “it wasn’t meant to be”, and he thinks “the world is out to get me what am I to do now? This was supposed to be mine. I’m going to be a failure”, Jimothy is going to seriously damage himself with his distorted perception. 

Stories give us the power to attribute meaning to our lives and the events that occur. They are reality distortion devices. If you happen to have been through a traumatic event, you don’t have to let it have power over you. You can simply mold positive meaning out of it. Thus, taking away it’s power. It’s not always easy. We respond reactively to situations and the narrative we initially make up may not be entirely helpful, potentially even harmful. But, introspection and being conscious of your outlook on life can let you observe the narratives you tell yourself. Therapy is similar. It’s pretty much a process of reflecting on and rewiring the stories you tell yourself. 

“I know now that what matters is what we choose to consider. All of life is a process of selection: we filter out the irrelevant details in order to come at a truth of sorts, which is no more valid than another possible truth, except in the fact that we selected it, as opposed to something else – and language is the instrument of that process. What matters is not just the story that is told, to ourselves and others, but the way the story is told, the words we select to convey, and to solidify, our vision.” – John Burnside ‘The Dumb House’

When it comes to narratives they are entirely arbitrary. For any event, you can think up a multitude of narratives. In the example with Jimothy, he could have thought “it was meant to be” or “it was just luck” or “I worked hard for it”. In reality there is no story to tell, it is what it is. Things happen as they are and can’t be any other way. There’s no way to order our chaotic world that’s rooted in objective reality. You just have to find one that seems to make the most sense. 

To reiterate the ideas I’ve shared with you so that hopefully it sticks. Our lives are random and chaotic. We tell arbitrary stories to make sense of our lives. We have the ability to shape our stories and change old ones. Thus, improving our outlook on life. Use your reality distortion devices wisely.

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