Let me begin by telling you a story. Once upon a time in a neighbourhood on the South Side of Johannesburg, there lived a boy. He grew up relatively poor in government housing. As those neighbourhoods typically are, gangs were rife, and parents were absent or high. When he wasn’t being cornered by the neighbourhood gangs, he would find himself being roughed up by the schoolyard bullies — who stole his lunch money. At home, things were tough too, his Mom had no problem ‘hitting’ the bottle or him. With no Father in sight, he felt abandoned, and even more of a target. For a reason he could never understand not having a father was something other kids loved to tease him about.
At age 17, enduring yet another one of his Mother’s drunken abusive rages — she kicked him out of the house. Finding himself sleeping on a park bench, the very same park he went to play in as a kid to escape the turmoil he found himself in — he was now destitute. A giant blinking neon sign above his head read, “Destined to become another statistic!”
This story could have easily become his ‘reality.’ In fact, stories have a funny way of becoming that, the reality that we create for our selves.
Why am I telling you this? Because this was my story!
The truth is, as much as one would like to have control over what happens to you, much of it is really out of your control. I didn’t ask to be brought up in gang infested neighbourhood. I didn’t ask to be poor. I didn’t ask to have an alcoholic Mother. And while I am sure I was a pain in the butt teenager, I didn’t ask to have a Mother that had no reservation in kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to then sleep on the city streets. Even today as an adult, there are things that happen to me all the time I didn’t ask for — as they saying goes, while you making plans life happens. But as Victor Frankl notes, it’s in challenging the meaning of life which can be said to be the “truest expression of the state of being human.” As hard a pill as it is to swallow, it’s the very nature of life’s challenges that is required to become the very person you have always wanted to become.
The truth is, you always have two choices when it comes to your personal narrative when facing the challenges of life. You can create a story that justifies what is happening to you, and wallow in your own self pity, or you can choose to create a story that enables you to inhabit a space of personal resilience — in spite of the world falling down around you. As Frankl, in Mans Search for Meaning so eloquently states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And that was me, that night on the park bench everything I had known, and the little bit of stability I had in my life, had been taken away from me. But that night, as Frankl notes, I chose the attitude I was going to have about it. In other words I had two choices: I could interpret what was happening to me with a story of self-loathing and self-pity, or as an opportunity to rise above the circumstances I found myself in. I chose the later. Ironically, a month before I was kicked out of the house, I stumbled across a copy of Victor Frank’s book, Man Search for Meaning and I read it. Had I not, the outcome and the trajectory of my life may have been very different.
I would argue that much of Frankl’s work was about conquering the self-limiting narratives we all use to hold ourselves back in life. As he notes, “When we are no longer able to change a situation — we are challenged to change ourselves.” For most people accepting a self defeating narrative that justifies the situation they find themselves in, is the path of least resistance. That night however being out on the streets was my reality, but that very situation, something that I couldn’t change (at least not immediately) forced me to decide on the story I was going to use going forward. Prior to finding myself out on the streets I used to imagine a life that was very different to the one I had. It was so vivid that I was there, in a place surrounded by success, surrounded by people who truly cared about me, and people who rooted for me to achieve my goals. In other words I always wanted to be more, and this was my ‘why’ for living. As Frankl notes, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’
Starting with what you most want out of life, with what your ideal life would look like is a powerful driving force. It gives you a vision of what arriving would feel, look and be like. Even in my darkest moments of despair, I retreated into that secret space in my mind, and immersed myself in what it would look and feel like when I made it. “Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives” Frankl notes, and my ‘vision’ goals were helping to pull me through the mud of life.
Taking this stance on life is not about burying ones head in the sand to the reality one finds oneself in, but at the same time you don’t have to keep reminding yourself how crap things are either. Trust me, you know it. But what this stance on life does, as Frankl suggests, allows you to have the inner awareness between the stimulus (what is happening) and the response that you choose. Yup, I bet you figured it out by now, the story that you choose to create. As Frankl notes there is always a space between stimulus and the response. It is in that space that we have the “power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The Buddha would have agreed, when he notes that all that we think we become. Research would agree too. As Carol Dweck in here research on mindset found there are two ways of thinking that decide the outcome between those who thrive and those who don’t. A fixed mindset
is when you believe that human qualities are carved in stone, a growth mindset is when you believe that through your own efforts you can cultivate your personal qualities. What is really being talked about here is the inner narrative one chooses.
So what kind of stories do you craft each day, fixed or growth? Lets hear from Frankl again, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
The point of this entire article is this, don’t take your personal narratives for granted. Question them. Ask of yourself what kind of stories am I creating, those that hold me back, those that disempower me, stories that justify my pain, or alternatively stories that create the complete opposite. The teachings of the Buddha again here ring true for me (and I am paraphrasing), but it is not what happens outside of us that creates our suffering, but rather how we choose to respond to it, that creates our suffering.
There is a reason, as one can see from this article, why stories were, and still are so powerful in our collective consciousness. At the heart of all stories, especially those that inspire us, is an opportunity to choose a difference response to a situation that often derails others. The questions is, ‘What stories are you going to choose for yourself today?’