Finding strength in our stories
Unless you have lived an entirely sheltered life, devoid of any exposure to suffering, death, tragedy or loss, which is basically to say that unless you are the Buddha himself before he left his palace in search for enlightenment, then you will, like all other beings on the planet, have a story. The story of ‘me’. A story that has nicks and twists and parts that simply shouldn’t be there. Bits that weren’t supposed to be that way. Stories that you didn’t want to be told. And so, like all other beings on the planet, you will face the hard task of making some meaning from your stories. The difficult road of learning how to be at peace with your story and how to use it to strengthen you, not destroy you. Because if there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that we don’t need others to destroy us; we do that well enough through the stories we tell ourselves.
Most often these stories are real but untrue. They are real because we believe in them, and so according to these beliefs, we behave, think and feel; we construct a reality, our reality. But they are not true; they are not the truth of who we are.
Most of us are destroyed/hindered/obstructed by our stories because we allow ourselves to be victims. It’s very easy to be a victim. It can feel good. I know because I have been one for huge swathes of my life. There is a certain balm to the ‘poor me’ stance that can feel suffocatingly soothing, right before it suffocates us. Self-pity can be a very easy trap to fall into because it allows us to not have to do anything. It is the epitome of emotional laziness, the opposite of self-enquiry. And when we feel drained and hurt we often just don’t feel like we have the energy to be anything other than a victim of life and it’s circumstances.
But far beyond any arguments for the mental (dis)ease of self-pity, I think there are two key reasons why so many of us fall into the victim trap and why we find it so hard to not be ruined by our stories;
- We believe that life shouldn’t entail suffering. We believe that we shouldn’t suffer.
- We believe that others don’t suffer as much as we do, in the same ways or to the same extent.
And so we become victims of life and we feel like we were dealt the short straw covered in rat poo. But we forgot that the tapestry of life - for you, for me, for the Dalai Lama and for the pretty lady next door, is woven from a combination of poo-covered short straws and sweet-smelling long ones. And that actually, it’s the short ones that give integrity, that have the most strength. Like a kind of scaffolding, if you will.
We are not unique in our suffering. Suffering is universal. It is here to stay and it will be around for as long we are in this blood-filled flesh sack and have a mind in need of taming. Suffering is our greatest teacher. When I think about all of the things that have made me grow - in kindness, self-knowledge, compassion, love - I also think about all of the things that have hurt me. Because the same things that hurt me challenge me, and the things that challenge me teach me. Sure, these things also have the capacity to break me, but that is precisely the reason that they can heal me, too; you can’t heal what ain’t broken. Of course I didn’t choose to have these ‘lessons’ (a.k.a crappy experiences), but I got them and so I have to work with them. I have to own them otherwise they will own me, I have to own them because otherwise they won’t be true. And unless they are true, I won’t be able to use them. When I think about people who’s authenticity and strength inspires me, I think about people who have had their fair share of shitty short-straws but who have paid attention to them, made some meaning from them, allowed the cracks to form and stay there until flowers start growing in them. They have used their suffering as an ember to light a fire deep within, and they use this fire to burn up what is not real and to light up what is. This fire is called wisdom and perspective and strength and resilience and love. It’s also called collateral damage, because of course it comes at a cost.
It is not easy owning our stories. It is easier, in many ways, to be a victim. To hide our stories from ourself and the world and to fabricate false ones. It's not easy owning our stories because we have to do three things that are very hard:
- We have to push past our shame around our suffering and our false belief that suffering makes us weak.
- We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To be broken. To be in need of healing.
- We have to seek meaning from our suffering.
But when we do this - which we all can - we start to feel integrated. We start to feel strong and real. To wear our scars like badges of honour - honouring our experiences and what we have learned from them. Making them part of our story in a way that has meaning. In a way that harbours a silent relinquishment of the wish for it to have been any other way. In a way that embraces the broken beauty of all that we are and all that we have experienced. In a way that gives us the gift of grace.
The thing is, we are meaning-seeking beings. Whether there ultimately is any meaning to life or not, we will never stop seeking it. We need to make meaning from life; this is why religions exist and it’s also why someone will tell you it’s good luck when a bird craps on your head on your way to work. When stuff goes ‘wrong’, when we hurt and suffer, there is an in-built need to make our suffering mean something. In order to do this, we have to reach a point where we can embrace our suffering so that it can be woven into the true story of who we are.
Our past only has strength over us when we repress and deny it. When it sits there like some ugly shadow casting darkness on our souls and making us feel ashamed and want to hide away from the world.
We can’t choose the things that happen to us, but we can choose what we take those things to mean for us. We can choose their truth. We have that power. We can choose these things to be part of the story of who we are, to be proof of all the things we have conquered and to light a fire deep within that burns with the kind compassion, love and wisdom that only comes from suffering. We can choose to be strengthened.