Saturday, May 5, 2012

Storytelling and the Meaning of Life (1 of 2)

What I was doing. Engraving from courtyard in front of MPPC.
My Hijacked Story

When I was young, my dad would tell me stories. And then, as the story continued, he would stop, and it would be my turn to continue the story. The story game would continue as the hero would be controlled alternatively by my dad and I. But I played the game again a few weeks ago. Except this time, it was not with my dad and it was not a fictional story. It was my story. And the co-narrator was the doctor supervising me, my attending.

Like the stories we used to tell, the story she told was very different from the one I was trying to tell. In my story, I was a hard-working medical student with my shoulders in the yoke, and though I didn’t have the mental strength of others, I nonetheless would press on hard. In her version, I was a stupid medical student, lazy and unwilling to do what the work required. And for about a week, I forgot about my version of the story.

Victor Frankyl was a Jewish psychiatrist during WWII. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. There he saw what kept men alive. It was not a sexual impulse as Freud suggested, or the “will to power” proposed by Adler, but it was meaning. Those prisoners who could put their struggle into a good story were those who survived. As soon as the events fell outside the story a person was telling, he gave up hope and ran into an electric fence or a bayonet. In Frankyl’s opinion, stories matter, maybe more than anything. The human soul cannot live without them. Frankyl escaped and survived the camps, ultimately founding a third Viennese school of psychotherapy (after Freud and Adler) called Logotherapy, whose focus is on helping patients find meaning to their lives.

So what was my story? I had two, and they were contradictory. That week, I lived in a tension. I experienced terrible anxiety: hands sweating, voice trembling, body trembling. I thought I was the Hardworking Ox, but I was treated like the Lazy Dunce. What was I? How had I allowed this to happen?

This happened because I believed a story that was false. I trusted my supervisor too much. Storytelling is serious business. Everyone but true friends will tell stories about you that benefit them. Business will tell about your being happy when you buy their product; this is the gimmick of every commercial. Government will tell about your being safe when you give up your freedom; this is the underlying message of every dictator. Society will tell about your being accepted when you conform; this is the bad kind of peer pressure. Bosses will tell about your being successful when you work hard; this is the cheese at the end of the rat maze. But none of these stories should be your story. None of these people actually care about you mainly because none of them actually know you.

After that week I remembered: “This is not my story!” And I began to win back my freedom. I wrestled in my soul to remember: “You are the Ox,” no matter how often I was treated like the Dunce. Slowly, I regained my confidence and my identity.

This episode taught me an important lesson. A prince in prison is still a prince. He will maintain his dignity, and not allow any jailer take it from him. His story will be about injustice, and about perseverance in the face of adversity. But if he ever accepts the story of his jailer, he gives up his crown and renounces his throne. So my readers, Princes and Princesses, do not listen to your jailers, masters or slave drivers. Tell your own story. Define victory on your own terms. Do not let their ideas of success or richness or happiness persuade you. This is why the Ancient Greek advice, gnĊthi seauton, is so important; it is critical to “know thyself” if you’re going to tell a good story.

--> On to Part II - Telling Great Stories

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