I love stories. Stories shape societies. Stories make for incredible works of art that move people to feel things and take action. People win Oscars for stories. Stories are awesome.
Except when they’re not.
Maybe the most important of the beliefs I hold that makes my infuriating optimism so possible is the belief that I can write my own stories. That life is just a series of circumstances that aren’t good or bad, but that just happen. The stories I tell myself about them, and whether they feel good (“rain: what a marvelous excuse to stay inside drinking lattes and watching Netflix!“) or feel terrible (“rain: I am locked inside with a maniac dog and nothing to do.”), determine what I feel about the circumstances themselves. The rain is just rain, it does not suck; my story about the rain sucks.
Now, moving forward with the ability to write stories as they go is one thing, but what about the ones we’ve already written? All we really know in the moment about past events is what we feel for the stories we continue to tell. Stories like “I hated Middle School, it was the worst,” or “College was so hard.” Well guess what, friend. Those instances happened in the past, they’re over, they’re not happening anymore. All that’s happening now is the re-telling of the story of ‘that was a bad thing,’ and that story sucks. I for one at least, don’t like walking around with the belief that my life has been one series of unfortunate events.
Nothing bad has ever happened. I know that might sound extreme, maybe totally ridiculous, maybe confronting, maybe even really offensive. But to me it sounds awesome. It means that no matter what’s happened in my past I don’t have to carry around old pain with me if I decide I don’t want to. Example:
When I was 20, my best friend was killed in a car accident. One minute, she was out in the world, a part of my life wherever she was, and then suddenly she was gone. And oh man did I grieve hard. Because for many many months it was all I knew to do. Miserable as it felt to think she was gone, there was something weirdly comforting in knowing I could just sit and grieve, not get out of bed, not have to feel good about it, just sob about missing her. And for as long as I believed that grieving was the right thing to do, I gathered evidence for it: grief was rewarded with gifts of condolences from others, comfort food, sleep, and a notion that people repeated over and over: that me being so sad must mean that I was a good friend, that I loved her a lot. And even though the missing piece felt so truly shitty, the piece where I was acknowledged as a good friend kept me in that place.
So I carried on, labeling her accident with a big sign that said “THIS WAS A TERRIBLE THING” because, strangely, it was the best-feeling thing to do. But eventually, grief became old and tired, stopped providing any level of comfort; it just felt purely terrible. My ‘this-is-a-bad-thing’ story wasn’t serving me anymore. I realized that my sadness didn’t mean I was a good friend who loved her a lot, it just meant I was sad. Me being a good friend who loved her a lot meant I was a good friend who loved her a lot. I didn’t need to keep reaffirming pain in order to know how deeply I loved this girl. I was carrying a horror story around when really I just wanted what I had before the crash: the ability to think of her and be filled with love and joy. Now, look at what that really is: the ability to think something and then feel something. That doesn’t happen because of a thing. That happens because of me: my brain, my thoughts, my feelings, my stories. I had serious work to do.
Editing that story was tricky. It meant challenging what I thought it meant that I wanted to feel good about the death of a really beloved friend. But in the newer version of my story, that’s precisely what feels so delightful: that thinking of her can create love instead of pain, that that piece doesn’t have to change just because she’s not here, that she continues to be for me what she was when she was alive: a fantastic source of sass and humor and relief and joy. And thinking of her like that feels so much more real, so much more like loving her (in the present tense) than associating her with misery all the time did. Feeling good about her in this instance took feeling good about death, and that was weird, at first, but really it was just the intro to my love story.
So yeah, it can be tricky to edit something you’ve been believing for months or for years or for your whole life. And yeah, believing it for as long as you have is part of what got you to where you are now, and that can be a hard thing to just let go of. But when where you are now and where you want to be now stop looking like the same thing, there may be some editing in order, and I’ve found it’s usually worth getting yourself all messed up in a little red ink.