The fictions we create about ourselves can imprison us
Suppose you are a physically attractive person. You are known for your looks. You were the belle of the school ball, or the hunk on the sports team. Being attractive becomes your identity, your calling card, your unique position in life. It’s what gives you self-esteem.
Looks don’t last, though. We age, we wrinkle up, we sag. Muscles weaken, hairlines recede. That is the truth of the matter, which can’t be avoided. Is it a truth you can face up to, however? Admitting that you are no longer as attractive as you we once were is painful, especially if your sense of identity is tightly wound up in your appearance.
So the story must continue, and it must harden. You are just as attractive and desirable as ever. You can still wear those body-hugging clothes. You are still the centre of attraction. People still adore you, much more so than they do these young upstarts.
You spend more and more on artificial appearance enhancers. You must keep the story going, at any cost. Mirrors trouble you greatly now, though. You hate coming up to one unexpectedly. The image you see horrifies you, but you look away quickly and put it out of your mind, and flash a big smile at anyone who’s looking at you. Very few people are.
As I wrote here last week, the narrating self beats the experiencing self, every time. We start living a lie, and deepen the lie rather than abandoning it.
Suppose you are a clever pupil. That becomes your core identity. It is where your applause comes from; it is how you feel good about yourself. You’re the ‘A’ student. As you enter higher education, however, the subjects become tougher. You are expected to be the top student, but you struggle. Will you accept this new reality? Or will your narrating self start talking about favouritism, about unfair examinations, about some debilitating illness that is now getting in your way?
What if you are the award-winning CEO, the one who transformed an industry and clocked up a remarkable run of results? You featured on magazine covers, and basked in the adulation of your peers as a true visionary and game-changer. Your strategy was studied in business schools.
What if that story starts running out of steam? What if your results were not just your own doing? What if there was a big dose of luck involved – you happened to introduce the right thinking and approach at a time when the economy was set to boom anyway? If your great run was actually a combination of deliberate action and good fortune, and the latter part has now run out – what’s your story now?
Most ‘visionaries’ cannot deal with this situation. Their narrating self finds it unthinkable to come back down to earth, and so the larger-than-life success story must be maintained. So they start to cook the books in order to keep the numbers coming; or they hang on to the role bitterly, resisting all attempts at change, trying to repeat the successes of yesteryear by doing the same thing again…
In all these cases, the wiser thing to do is to develop some deep self-awareness. Be conscious of your narrating self. Understand that the stories that self tells are mostly convenient fictions. Question your own plotlines. Become more aware of factual evidence, and tone down the yarns that give you false comfort.
Life throws some unpalatable realities at us. Nothing really lasts. Most things have a season, and then they are gone. Our successes are only partly our own doing. Change occurs, and undoes our pasts. Randomness features heavily in our lives, for better or for worse. Meaning is elusive.
If we can develop the fortitude to cope with these realities, we have a better chance of coping with our twisting lives. If we can see through our own myths and smokescreens, we might be able to handle change and entropy differently.
In all cases, the fundamental lesson is this: don’t hype up your own story. Be very circumspect. Avoid exaggerations and feel-good embellishments. Keep it grounded and real. Resist the narrative that others create around you. Look away from artificial applause and empty awards. Not one of us is that heroic or that marvellous. We become that way only in our imaginations, when we fail to resist the stories of ourselves, whether told by us or by others.
(Sunday Nation, 24 March 2019)
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