Stories

So you’re here for a story. Not a long one. Maybe you’re looking for someone you know named Michael Parks so you can extend that story with him. It’s possible I’m part of your story and by checking this blog you seek to further that story. Somehow you made it here and really it’s because you want to know. To learn, see…. and that is part of what story is – it enables experience.

At the root of all human activity you will find story because it is inextricable from our lives. It is literally the glue that holds together the elements of self, family, community, society, and civilization. Without story, human history wouldn’t exist and not just for the telling aspect – but because without it, human purpose wouldn’t exist. That’s because story is an element of reality. It is foundational. It is design. It is what provides background and meaning to our human experience. It is found in every aspect of life.

A small example, then, to start. The story of timeliness. You learned from a young age to be “on time”. Late to dinner? Harsh words from your parent(s). Late to school? A tardy mark, maybe detention. Later, loss of a job. What story does being late tell? To many it’s about lack of discipline. To others it’s about a single mother having a hard time getting the kids to daycare and school on time. Timeliness to some is learned as a key element of success while to others as a ‘nice habit to have’. Two different stories, same concept, but stories nonetheless.

We form larger, more complex stories as a means to maintain identity, escape painful truths, or to face them head on. For example, a child who was abused may grow up to purposefully strive for physical strength and confidence – so their story hides a fear of being dominated by others. They were taught weakness, helplessness, and vulnerability, so when growing up had to rewrite their story to feel stronger and survive. In truth, they still feel vulnerable and oftentimes helpless in their careers or relationships, but the story of strength they adopt helps them get by, to survive and thrive.

Stories saturate our experience. They are agreements that provide direction and confidence and are answers to the uncertainties inherent in life. Most commonly they are beliefs that join us to society – to its laws, traditions, and conventions – the structures that most define daily life. What society would exist long without a general prohibition against murder? How safe would a city’s streets be without traffic lights, signs, and speed limits? We readily adopt stories that change our behavior, limit our options, all for the sake of self-preservation and community.

If stories were paint, they would be the swaths that define our mental landscape and our outer worlds.

Religion uses story extensively. So does nationalism and patriotism, government, and pop culture. How often does the concept of “cool” spawn and then wane around a person, music, places, and themes? When the stories grow strong, so does the belief and experience of the people. That growth, and its direction, is based on acceptance of story. A simple example of this are Crocs, Birkenstocks, Vans, topsiders… all footwear with varying degrees of ‘cool’ over time, all thanks to their stories. A complex example of this is Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Satanism, Scientology, and atheism… all religions whose acceptance has driven the lives of billions over the ages. So much of our lives are story dependent.

So in story we find meaning, value, direction, and either comfort or discomfort. For many, the story of conspiracy surrounding JFK’s assassination, for example, evokes strong uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. For some, the story of Barack Obama evokes hope and inspiration while in others just the name evokes cynicism and disregard for his part in the Establishment. Story, then, is personal and not always chosen. It can be a result of many stories residually defining what we believe.

One interesting aspect of story is how it is used to retroactively alter our sense of self. A man that is fired for not meeting expectations can, two years later, have rewritten his history at that company, portraying it as a struggling firm that couldn’t afford him and that settled for a lesser replacement to save money. This rewriting of story is found not only in individuals but in groups, too. Inconvenient truths are often quickly omitted or re-characterized in order to instill comfort where truth would be upsetting. The genocide of native Americans is a prime example where such rewriting was employed to preserve (or create) the honor and glory of a nation (and still is for many).

This malleability of story, of belief and history, is at the root of control – both of self and of others. Through such change, opinions, motivations, and divisions are crafted and employed in determining the future. This crafting is fundamental to all leadership in human society, at every level. I could write a novel about the impact of story on our political and social viewpoints – and how divisive those stories are designed to be. It is no surprise that those who seek power are well-versed in spinning facts and half-truths (and even lies) in order to influence others and attain goals.

This control could not exist if not for the penchant for humans to need story.

The desire to make the world more endurable, more comfortable, more right, is ingrained in our DNA – and story is the vehicle for that drive. That’s because experience is a result of belief. The old saying, “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how you take it” is quite true, demonstrably so.

Story is an inheritance process with little choice

The problem with story begins when the individual accepts all story without discretion. It begins when the child never exposes his handed-me-down stories to the light of factual, reasonable review. Why does a person’s skin color cause them to think less of them? Do they not know what skin pigmentation cells are? And how otherwise that person has the exact same biology as themselves? Blood is red in every vein of all our bodies. Our brains are wrinkled and perched above our spines in just the same way. Human tears fall at the same rate down any cheek. Some of the finest scientific breakthroughs and inventions in human history were achieved by people with dark pigmentation cells in their skin. Ignorance of all this is due to story and is often the basis for implicit bias.

Our internal stories are vastly underestimated – and so often unrecognized for a lifetime, operating on our worldview and view of self like puppet masters. They pull the strings of our thoughts and emotions, influencing our quality of life and our connections to others. Shyness, fear of crowds, low self-confidence, feelings of worthlessness and anxiety are all rooted in the story of Self. This story is a collection of short stories, events or periods of our lives that impacted us, compounded beliefs, and undermined the reality of our goodness, capabilities, and worthiness. Such stories were often written as a result of the actions of others – verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, or simply by mistakes made at formative times.

The human mind will always seek comfort, ease, survival, so such stories are buried but never forgotten. As a result, the strings are there, appearing from the dim past, tied to our every waking moment, influencing us without our realizing it. Studies have shown how human behavior is “rewired” by trauma – proving that experiences write unforgettable stories.

I like to tell people, “we are everyone we’ve ever been. Every moment, every age, and every mood. Within us is the three-year old, the eight-year old, the seventeen-year old, and so on. It’s why we don’t feel our age. We are all of them at once.” You can experience this like running a finger up and down a ruler – you can feel and be any age with relative ease. Try it and see.

So it’s fairly clear that recognizing stories – both within us and outside of us – is essential to truly being in control of our experience. Our feelings, our motivations, our politics, our relationships – all depend on story, on learning, knowing, seeing…. and being present and accountable for the truth (or lack of truth) in those stories we adopt or reject.

Lastly, I’ll say that I’m drawn to being an author for reasons that should be obvious now. The chance to temporarily replace someone’s reality with one of my making is… fantastic. Like magic. And an honor. What’s more, the opportunity to cast light, to illuminate, to create understanding and spawn further discovery is magnetizing. Somehow, the written word has the ability to bridge, connect, and otherwise join people to a reality that becomes a part of them, a part of their story. When I get excited about writing, those are the sparks that precede the fire of creativity.

I hope you leave this page with a keener sense of story – your story, my story, and the stories that swirl around and within us – now and in the future. Don’t be afraid to be the author (and editor) of your stories.

-Michael Parks