The Power of Story In Our Lives

You don’t just have a story – you’re a story in the making and you never know what the next chapter’s going to be. That’s what makes it exciting.

                                                                                                           – Dan Millman

It’s said that human beings can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but only about 30 seconds without finding meaning in something. Creating stories is what we naturally do. Stories are not the problem. After all, we are hard-wired for story. It’s how we make sense of everyone and everything.

But we live in the stories we create. And so the challenge, therefore, is to create stories that work for us instead of against us, and to write the stories of our lives in ways that are empowering, strengths-based and growth-oriented, instead of victim-based, dis-empowering and shame-based.

Coming into a State of Coherence

The first stories we tell about ourselves form what is referred to as “the narrative arc of our lives.” Aaron Antonovsky, one of the pioneers of medical sociology, was able to correlate the connection between having a strong sense of narrative coherence and greater happiness, health, resilience and motivation to take positive action. Thus, coherence is not just a “nicety;” in fact, our very well-being depends on it. Says Antonovsky, three elements contribute to a strong sense of coherence:

  1. Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
  1. Manageability. I can cope with what has happened (or is happening) in my life. It’s not easy, but I can summon the internal and external resources I need to manage my life.
  1. Meaningfulness. I have grown or learned (or have the potential to) as a result of my experiences. The challenges I face are worth addressing.

Vayigash” is a perfect example of what is possible when one is in a state of “coherence.” The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax with one of the most dramatic moments in Biblical narrative. In reaction to Joseph’s feigned refusal to release Benjamin, Yehuda begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s stead, pleading that the loss of another son – this son – would kill his father, Jacob.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph bursts out revealing his true identity, stating, “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph!” The brothers are in shock and terrified. Before them stands the complete refutation of their actions, against which they are utterly defenseless. As the Viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could have them imprisoned or worse, but miraculously, he bears the brothers no ill will. Not only is Joseph not punitive, but he even comforts his brothers, stripping them of any power or hold they thought they ever had over his fate.

The Bigger Picture

For underneath the surface drama of the story, and the intentions and motives of the brothers, lies an Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, who was orchestrating events to fulfill a Divine Plan. This belief in the bigger picture and deeper meaning of otherwise meaningless and tragic events gave Joseph a sense of purpose, helping him to manage and cope with his ordeals and remain spiritually, emotionally and mentally intact. How else could he emerge from twelve years in an Egyptian prison with all of his wits about him, so as to be promoted to Viceroy to Egypt on the spot!

Whether it was at that very moment, or later, when he finally saw his brothers, his story “made sense,” became “comprehensible” and Joseph was able to narrate it in a way that was empowering. Rather than be a victim, and consumed with hatred and bitterness, Joseph was filled with strength and grace.

Telling a New Story

In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains how a plot is what happens, whereas the real story is how the protagonist changes. Understandably, the plot hooks us, but the purpose of the story is much deeper than the mere telling of events. Looking below the storyline of “what happened” to get at “what the story was about,” affords us a new perspective. When we look at the painful stories of our past and see how we nevertheless coped and managed, and how we were able to transmute suffering into growth, then the stories of our lives can take on new meanings, meanings that can even make some overall sense.   This awareness of coherence then gives us the strength and resilience to deal with the struggles and challenges of our present.

And that fills us with well-being, optimism, and possibility. Our challenge is to stop telling stories that keep us stuck in blame.   Like Joseph, we can compose the narratives of our past in ways that are empowering, and in so doing, we can use our past to inspire our present and to inform a better future. When we can look back at the events of our past and embrace them as for being the perfect training ground for who are today, then, we can begin to be the authors of our own lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

1.We all have stories we create that we think of as objective truth. Think of a time when someone wronged you, and you felt betrayed. Now, retell that story to yourself but exonerate that person. Say or write it in a way where the person was not trying to hurt you and was unaware that he/she was doing so. Make this person innocent in your new version. Then respond to the following: how does this new story make you feel? How do you now feel about this person?

Retelling of story

How do you feel? How do you feel towards that person?

2. Write down three situations where you feel you successfully overcame a difficulty. What qualities came out of you in those situations that helped you be successful (i.e. patience, empathy, self-awareness, etc.)?

Three successful situations:

List your qualities in those situations:

3. Write down a challenge you are facing right now. Think about the qualities you just listed and you know you are capable of tapping into. Which of these will help you through your current challenge? How can you implement it/them to work through what you are dealing with?

Current challenge/ quality from above that can help you and how:

Kedoshim -Authentic Freedom

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

                          David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest

There is a difference between being “free” and having a “free-for-all”. Having left Egypt, the Jews were no longer slaves and were “free”. But what does freedom look like?The Egyptian Pharaoh was considered to be a “god.” He could enslave a nation, decree genocide, act outside of all reason, and he answered to no one. In being “free” to act with impunity, Pharaoh nevertheless brought widespread death and destruction to his country. So, is that what “freedom” looks like? If so, then really, what’s the point? Surely, it must mean something else.

A New Paradigm of Freedom

In liberating the Jewish people from slavery, God had to teach us what freedom – true freedom – looks like. Without a paradigm or model to go on, God had to teach us from the ground up. The kind of freedom God wanted us to embrace was a certain kind of freedom, the freedom of being “congruent”.

Being congruent means that the actions of your external self are consistent with the values of your internal being. Essentially, it means being authentic and true to yourself. The question is, however, as we can see from the example of Pharaoh, who was evil inside and out, is which self are we, and what kind of person do we want to authentically express?

Having been slaves in Egypt for over two hundred years, how could the newly- liberated Jew know what his or her real self was? How could a newly-freed slave understand his or her potential much less how to actualize it?

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim”, which means “narrowness” or “constraint.” Leaving Egypt for the desert was going from a place of constricted boundaries to a place of no boundaries. To avoid the external chaos of a “free-for- all”, as well as the internal panic of being in a state of “free-fall”, God had to teach us what being a truly free human being looks like, and how to create our internal controls.   So the Jews had to learn both “how” to be as well as “what” to be.

One of the main themes of this week’s Torah portions, “Kedoshim”, deals with the laws of prohibited relationships. Previously, it was the laws of proper speech – what comes out of your mouth. Before that, it was the laws of kosher animals – what goes into your mouth. Laws, laws and more laws. It seems that there is no part of our lives, our relationships, our behaviors, even our bodies, which is not governed by Torah law.   That is because Judaism is an inside/outside religion.

So is this just a new form of slavery? After all, when we were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh certainly controlled us.   In so doing, however, Pharaoh wanted to crush us, to break us down utterly. In total contrast, God wants to build us up, to cultivate our character so that we understand who we truly are – a holy people.

The Freedom to be Holy

 For us to be holy, however, we must be “whole”. We must be congruent. We must be holy both inside and out. In governing all of the myriad aspects of our lives, God is teaching us that Judaism is not compartmentalized, but is a seamless integrated holistic way of being.

Therefore, we can’t say – “This is for God, but that is not.” We can’t say, “Before, I was on God’s time, but now I am on my time.” We can’t say, “What I do or say over here matters, but over there it does not.” And we certainly can’t say, “Well, this is just business…”

And so whether it’s governing what we eat, how we speak, how we conduct business, how we treat others, how we conduct our intimate relationships, etc. etc. etc.… it ALL matters. In an integrated seamless holistic life, everything HAS to matter. And therefore, we can look at each law that God gives us as another nuance and refinement, another pathway and connection, to help us close the gap between the external being and the internal selves that represent our true godly essence.

When we were delivered from Egypt, we were given the gift of freedom. To stay, free, however, is another story. Staying free means embracing freedom as a responsibility to be earned, integrated and owned – in other words, being congruent. When we can do that, no one and nothing can ever enslave us again. And that is what freedom – true freedom – really looks like.

Things To Ponder:

  1. Is there some area of your life where you are not congruent? If so, what one step can you take to close the gap?
  2. When and how will you do it?
  3. Why is this important to you and what will be different in your life – and about you?
  4. How will you know when you are being more congruent?
  5. How will other people in your life know that you are being more congruent?
  6. How does having more congruence enlarge or empower you?