Co-authored with Barbara Keil
Life is a roller coaster of experiences pelting us with joys, pains, feelings, discoveries and surprises. How do we humans attempt to wrestle this muddle of experiences into something that makes sense? How do we give meaning to the events of our lives?
We create stories. We take all those experiences and we form them into narratives—our own interpretation of what has happened to us. Some stories are overflowing with joy—perhaps the story of how we fell in love with our spouses or the evolution of treasured family traditions. Some stories are packed with pain—perhaps how we were hurt by someone we trusted or a time when someone cheated us.
Our Perspective Determines the Story
Once we create our stories, we file them in our memories. They become the versions of events that we retell to ourselves and others until we consider them to be accurate and truthful representations of our life experiences. We forget that we have based our stories on our own interpretation of our experiences. And we fail to recognize that our interpretations determine both the content and the morals of our stories.
A friend of mine told a story about her father. He endured many challenges in his life. His mother abandoned him when he was two years old. As a result, he was raised in an orphanage. During his adult years he had many health problems. He lost his eyesight for a number of years until an operation was able to restore sight in one eye. He was diagnosed with cancer. His kidneys shut down and he had to undergo dialysis treatments each week. During one hospital stay, he contracted a rare virus that caused a persistent lung infection. Many nights he had to sleep upright in a chair in order to breathe.
And then he was diagnosed with another cancer in the one eye with sight. As he and his family drove home after learning he might again go blind, his discouraged daughter commented, “You just can’t seem to catch a break, can you?”
The next morning her father called her and said to her, “I wanted to let you know, I disagree with your assessment. I married a woman who has always been my best friend and have a family I love. I had a career that gave me opportunities I never imagined I would have. I have great friends. And I have enjoyed the journey every step of the way. I believe I am and always have been a very lucky man.”
While he could have written his life story as one that included a number of bad breaks and continuing challenges, his choice to focus upon the joys of his life caused him to genuinely perceive his life as a rewarding journey that surpassed his expectations. We can choose to see ourselves as victims of life, or we can chose a different theme for our life story such as the growth we have achieved in overcoming challenges, or the tender mercies we have been granted.
It isn’t our circumstances that determine the story we tell ourselves about our life—it’s our perspective.
Our Biases Distort the Story
There is another problem with the stories we create. Once we have written our stories, we typically consider them to be accurate and truthful history. But we forget that we have limited and biased perspectives as the authors of those stories. We place ourselves and our own feelings, needs and intentions at the center of the stories we create. We are woefully unaware of the actual feelings, needs and intentions of the other people who populate our stories—instead we insert our own perceptions and interpretations about them and their motives. Our biases create distortions of the people and circumstances in our stories. We frequently misunderstand and misrepresent the people and events in our lives—and we do it without being aware of it.
I once knew a couple that married in the temple, delighted that their family would be bound together for eternity. It seemed to everyone that they were deeply in love. She told everyone how happy she was.
Years later she announced to her husband that she no longer wanted to be married to him. She told him that as she looked back, she concluded she was never really happy. There hadn’t been any incidences of infidelity or abuse on his part—just the usual irritations and chafing that occurs in marriages. But she decided that she had never been satisfied in the relationship from the beginning. Now that she was “seeing more clearly” she felt she had no other option than leaving the marriage.
Perhaps she was a far better actress than any of us knew and the good relationship that we witnessed for many years wasn’t real. But I strongly suspect it is more likely that she has re-written her life story to excuse her desire to leave the marriage. Many times we will re-write and edit our memories to justify current feelings or behavior. We begin the process of deleting positive memories of family members, friends or fellow ward members from our mind and begin crafting evidence of their offenses, disappointments, and failures. Maybe we even turn them into villains—while we have no way of knowing their real thoughts or intentions, we decide based on our own bias that their offenses were deliberately hurtful or malicious.
What if that woman had edited her life story differently? What if she had gone back and remembered how they fell in love, the joyful times of their marriage and times when they had overcome challenges together? What if she had considered the story of their relationship with themes of compassion, forgiveness and commitment? Perhaps she might have remembered many reasons to stay. Perhaps their marriage might have been saved and even thrived.
Sometimes we get stuck in our stories. We re-live unhappy experiences over and over again. As we re-live those unhappy stories, we re-create and re-experience all the emotions of hurt and anger. We might become even more wounded or outraged. And in that renewed hurt and anger, we will be tempted to refine our stories to further enhance the reasons for our negative judgments. We know in some part of our souls that we must surrender our harsh assessments of the other people in our story. But we refuse. We become addicted to our version of events and our resentments. We justify our harsh stories rather than repent of our hard-heartedness.
God’s Remedy for Faulty Life Stories
All of this may seem like a gloomy assessment of our ability to objectively interpret life.