Stories are all around us, weaving through everything, from blockbuster entertainment to our daily lives, from birth till death; stories inspire, explain, and frame our existence. Story telling is one of our oldest human traditions, allowing us to build meaning and pass along knowledge from generation to generation. We share our stories to inform others, to teach what is worthwhile and what is not. We craft stories to entertain, to illicit a laugh or to bring a tear. Stories have power…and nothing else has more power over your life than the stories you tell and believe. If you want to truly live life and become the best man (or woman) you can be, it all starts with the stories of your life.
Last go around, I had planned to use this article to outline the virtues of the well formed man, but over the course of this weekend, through conversations both internal and external, I decided to put that off for a few days and instead focus on the more important issue of what stories frame our lives.
As an author and lifelong reader, the tales that others tell have been of tremendous importance to me. Through books, short stories, movies, and memoirs, I have been able to escape into other worlds and other lives, experiencing things that I would never see otherwise. I think most of us are like this, we see the stories that others tell mainly as entertainment, as a form of escapism, wonderful, yet safe. We may even have a few stories of our own that we like to share over a pint with friends, to relive glory days or recapture moments that made us smile, but even those are safely in the past. Things that have happened, that we survived or embraced, but do little other than invoke memories of days gone by. We choose to ignore the stories that we tell ourselves every day, the stories that shape who we are and how we grow. In fact, most of us are unconscious of the stories that we find ourselves in, that hold us back from living the lives of our dreams, from being the heroes that we imagined as children. We have to wake up and take control of the authorship of the rest of our lives.
Two things really brought this to my attention recently, one being a short story that I heard on a podcast over the weekend. It was called “Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser. The story focuses on a man who buys a bottle of “miracle polish” from a traveling salesman on a lark. His life continues as humdrum as ever, until he notices a smudge on his mirror. Deciding that he might as well use the surely bogus polish that he recently purchased, he uses the stuff to shine his mirror and is shocked by the immediate difference. Looking into the newly polished mirror, he is astounded by the reflection staring back at him. It still looks like him, imperfections and all, but instead of the world weariness and defeat that he carries on a day to day basis, his reflected self looks positive, upbeat, and ready to conquer the world. The man automatically feels better about himself; he can’t stop looking at his inspiring reflection. He goes out and starts buying more mirrors, polishing each one, so that his newfound self will be visible in every room of the house. Seeing himself in this positive light causes him to feel like he can take on anything in the world, and his work ethic and life improve dramatically. The story does drift into conflict later in regards to the man’s love interest who feels he is more in love with her idealized self than her “true” self, but the man realizes that the mirror image is her true image. It is her as she really is, without the wounds of the world and the disappointments of life, but sadly, things fall apart at the end of the story, though the man holds onto the one thing he learned through his ordeal…hope.
The second event that caused me to give more radical attention to the stories we tell ourselves came through a conversation with my cousin. Over coffee, we sat down to talk about life, work, and futures. Through our meandering conversation we stumbled onto this idea of how the stories we tell ourselves influence how we live and how we view our world. Of course, this idea is nothing new or particularly unique, but if we are truly honest most of us pay no thought to it. We spend so much time worrying, working, stressing, and drugging ourselves with distractions that we don’t even hear the voices dictating in our minds. We’ve told ourselves the same stories time after time to the point that we no longer hear them, we just accept them and allow them to control our lives.
There have been many stories that I have told myself over the years, some good and some not so good. As a child I was always told about how much “potential” I had. Supposedly, I was a very bright child and much was expected of me by the adults in my life. I don’t mean that as a negative thing, my parents were especially supportive of me growing up, but in my mind I internalized all of this “potential” to the point that it smothered me. Throughout my teen and young adult years, I constantly told myself that with so much potential, I should be doing something amazing, but instead of inspiring me to work harder and dream bigger, it caused me to wonder why I wasn’t accomplishing more. If I had so much potential, why didn’t I have anything to show for it?
And so the story morphed in my mind, almost subconsciously, I began to believe that there was something wrong with me, that despite having the capabilities to achieve much, I was obviously defective. As you can imagine this lead me down a dark path. I second guessed every decision I made, paralyzing me from completing anything. I sank deeper and deeper into depression weighed down by each and every new “failure” around my neck. First, I escaped into books, movies, and friends; soon I began self medicating with alcohol and food. I felt so overwhelmed with my potential and the lack of any results that I came to a place where I could barely peel myself off my couch and do anything at all.
Then I had my D-Day moment.
As I discussed in the last post, I came to a point where I could no longer believe the warped lie that the voice in my head was feeding me. I had to make a choice, the choice to stand up to that negative story and live each day as a lion among lambs. I began to tell myself a new story, a story that begins with the life I want to live and the fact that I can make it happen. I began to tell myself that potential doesn’t matter, action matters. I began to believe in myself and started focusing on the goals that I want to achieve. I began to live each day, thinking about what story I will make and if it will be one that I will be happy to retell on my death bed. And I believe that makes all the difference.
Before you shut me out and write me off for going all new aged on you, think about this; all great men throughout history believed in themselves; despite what other said, despite their own doubts, they believed in the story they were writing and lived with a directed intensity that made them into legends. Napoleon Hill, the great writer on success, championed the idea that if you cannot dream it, then you will never do it. We must stop giving into the negative stories that build within us, fueled by the words of others and the defeats we suffer, and begin to believe that we are destined for greatness.
Take for example the movie, Legends of the Fall. I don’t care what you say, that is a great movie. It has stirred a desire for life and greatness within me since I was a child. I still go back and watch it at least once a year; just to immerse myself into the Montana wilderness and the story of lives well lived. In this movie, you get a glimpse at the results of believing false stories about one’s self. The oldest son, Alfred, falls into the trap of believing that he isn’t man enough for their father and seeks glory and approval at every turn, thus leading him through many questionable situations before finally bringing him back home and breaking the spell. Then there is Tristan, the man’s man, the wild son. Tristan seeks to live his life the best way he sees fit, but through a tragic death blames himself and believes himself unworthy of love or forgiveness. The story largely follows his quest to break free from the negative narrative he becomes trapped in and start living his life again. The family goes through so much and each member falls into the trap of self doubt and self loathing, but we see what it takes to break free, find love, and embrace life. It is an apt story to tell the tale of how our hearts and minds get buried between childhood and adulthood, but it offers us the chance to fight our way back to the life and love that we dreamed of as we were children, laying under the stars and catching fireflies.
So my advice and wish for each of you, is to take the time to sit down and consider…whose story is your life following? Are you writing the next scene in the magnum opus that is your life? Or are you instead letting the critics write your story, telling you that you can’t accomplish your heart’s desire, that you can’t truly be the hero in this tale?
Sit down and examine where you want to be in one, five, ten years…are you on the path to your goals? If not, now is the time to figure out why. Now is the time to tell yourself that you will no longer believe the negative lies that have hemmed you in and kept you from embracing the wild, majestic ride that is life, instead you are in control and you have the power to rewrite your story. All it takes is for you to make the choice, to make that choice each and every day, to stand up and fight the naysayers and the critics, believing that when all is said and done you will stand victorious and amazed. Take the time to write down your goals, decide how you are going to make it happen, and lastly, truly believe that you are going to do it. You won’t win every battle and you are going to screw up, but if you keep your ending in mind you will be able to overcome all.
Next time, we are going to take a look at the virtues and attitudes that embody what it means to truly be a man. We will start our journey by focusing on each individually and discovering how we can work each aspect into our arching narrative of life. We are taking that step; we are telling the world that we are no longer content to live like sheep. I believe in you. Together we will accomplish much and we won’t be brought down by lesser men. It’s time to rewrite your story…time to be the hero you dreamed about all those years ago.