99 tips for a better world: tell your own story (19 of 99)
A few weeks ago, an owl came to live at my house. I had just arrived back to my hometown where I grew up, which would be my landing spot for a few weeks between leaving work in Melbourne and beginning my overseas travels.
Shortly after I arrived home, my mum commented on the racket some birds were making in the tree outside the kitchen window. I wandered out to take a look at the birds and discovered an owl.
I’d never seen an owl perched in this or any other tree in our backyard. It sat there calmly, unconcerned about birds screeching maniacally at it.
Over the next few weeks, I watched the owl closely and I wrote about it on my blog.
In the blog post, I wrote about my search for what the owl’s presence means. In my suitably neurotic fashion, I worried that I was missing the symbolism of the moment.
Attempting to form a coherent blog post, I searched for a narrative to explain the whole experience to my audience and perhaps, more importantly, to myself.
In the story I told, my contemplation of the owl taught me a valuable lesson, and as soon as I learnt that lesson, the owl flew away.
That was the end of the blog post, but not the end of the owl. After a couple of days, I found the owl in another tree.
When I told my sister, whom I had been keeping regularly updated on all matters owl-related, she asked the perfectly reasonable question, ‘What does that mean for your blog post?’
In that moment a piece of the puzzle fell into place. It’s not only the facts about the owl that matter, but the story I tell about them.
I love contemplating the owl’s presence, and I love telling stories to myself (and my blog audience) about what it all means. But I don’t really believe that the owl arrived at my house to deliver me a message like a courier from the Universe.
That doesn’t make my story about the owl any less important. Indeed, it proves to me how important my stories are.
We understand ourselves and the world through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Imagine the world is just like an icebreaker session in a workshop. You are invited to introduce yourself to the person next to you, and that person to you. Ideas are formed about who you are. You pass on knowledge about yourself, not just through the information you share about yourself, but through the choice of which information to share and how you share it.
Life is like one long and complicated icebreaker session.
We are consciously or unconsciously telling stories about ourselves to the world all the time: in a job interview, when you update a friend on your life, or roll into the office 10 minutes after 9AM with a large coffee and bed hair.
It’s not just the telling of the story. It’s the process of forming the story that matters. It’s like deciphering the meaning of a dream. Jung would tell us that the process of dissecting the events in the dream and applying meaning to those events is where the significance can be found.
So make the most of it, and tell the stories you want to tell. That doesn’t mean you get to create fiction about who you are and everyone will automatically believe it. If there are disconnects it will show, like when the audio in a film doesn’t sync up to the video.
At the same time, don’t get too hung up on plausibility. Too often we allow the stories that have come before and the stories that others tell to shape our own versions. Sometimes the story you want to tell doesn’t fit comfortably with someone else’s narrative. Keep telling your story. Even if that other person’s story is louder, at least you know your own version.
In many ways, feminism is about women telling their own stories. It is about the systematic denial of women’s stories and the fight to overcome that system. But as the barriers begin to fall, we have to fill the space by forming our stories and sharing them widely.
Jane Austen knew about the power of story. In a time when women’s stories were seen as insignificant, she told those stories openly and beautifully and drew great meaning from the domestic lives of women.
From Jane Austen’s Persuasion:
(Harville) ‘As I was saying, we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you—all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon women’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs all talk of woman’s fickleness. But, perhaps, you will say these were all written by men.’
(Anne) ‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have every advantage on us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’