The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Journal and candle
Journal and candle

“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown

People are like stained-glass windows, they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in; their true beauty is revealed only if their light is from within.” ~ Elizabeth Kübler Ross

“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness – actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.” ~ Brené Brown

I hope this post makes sense. This has been a stressful and tiring few days putting the finishing touches on our student written plays. There are always so many little problems to find solutions for to prepare for performances. All that work means I haven’t had time to continue reading Brené Brown’s latest book Rising Strong.

Last week before the last minute frenzy began, I was struck by a section in the book about how when we fail at something, or some negative event, big or small, happens to us, we make up a story about why it happened, how everyone else is to blame, and that we are the victims. In fact, she says that we’re wired to tell stories. She cites Neuroeconomist Paul Zak who “has found that hearing a story–a narrative with a beginning middle, and end–causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.” (pg. 6 Rising Strong.)

So when we have an argument with a loved one, or someone at work, we tell ourselves their side of the story so we can get that rush of chemicals and feel better. The thing is, we’re probably lying to ourselves. We can’t possibly know how the other person was feeling, or what they were thinking during the argument. We tell ourselves stories about all kinds of encounters. Yet, if we want to grow, we have to deconstruct our own emotions over the encounter.

One of the things I love about Brené is that she tells stories about her own life struggles. She just puts her own process out there for her readers. She’s vulnerable. That’s something I’m struggling to be, open, honest, and transparent.

So, here goes. I sometimes encounter people who want to tell me how to do my writing process. That irritates the heck out of me, especially if they aren’t writing themselves. Going back to another Brené Brown book, Daring Greatly, if you’re not in the arena, then I don’t want to listen to your criticism, or helpful hints about how to do my job! In my opinion every artist has their own unique process, which should not be interfered with. As a teacher, I seek to guide students to find their own creativity not make them cookie cutter extensions of me.

So, when someone, who is not a writer, gives me advice, I make up all kinds of stories in my head about why they do that! I want to blame them for being controlling, or superior when I have no idea why they feel the need to “help” me. But what I’m really doing when I blame them, is avoiding something inside myself, or failing to set my boundaries.

These are the things that are going on in my head, “I’m new to writing. I’m not an expert. I flying by the seat of my pants and following some invisible creativity muse that only I can hear. Or maybe I’m just crazy.” I mean, I make up all kinds of stories about me, and the other person when they try to HELP me. When I should just calmly set a boundary and say that if you’re not an artist of some kind, then I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell me how to do my job. No blame, no shame. I won’t tell you how to live your life. I’ll be there for you if you need me and I may ask for your advice from time to time, and within those guidelines, we can still be friends.

The interesting thing is, I don’t tell myself stories when my writer friends make comments on my work. They are in the arena with me, struggling just like I am, so any help they can give me along the way is welcome.

Brené suggests you get a journal and investigate your negative feelings when they arise. They are sign posts pointing you to something vital that you need to deal with. I’ve been keeping a journal for almost forty years and I can say without a doubt, it is one of the most valuable personal growth tools I’ve got in my self-help tool box. I use my journal to examine the stories I make up in my head for big devastating events, and small irritating ones as well. Lately, I’ve been writing about my issues with people who are trying to help me. I understand you want to help. But sometimes creativity is a solitary process and the best way you can help an artist is to allow them to do their process and just support them with silence and good thoughts sent their way.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or share with a friend.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2016

Drama Fatigue

Marco Polo“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself, or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.” ~ Wayne Dyer

“You know the value of every article of merchandise, but if you don’t know the value of your own soul, it’s all foolishness.” ~ Rumi

“No critic ever changed the world.” ~ Robin Sharma

“Do not fear to lose what needs to be lost.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd

Last week a student in one of my theatre classes came to class with yet another crisis in her life. She reminds me so much of myself at her age which is a little bit disconcerting. Pain and suffering exude from her every pore and many of the other students merely tolerate her because every week it’s some new crisis. Seeing her struggle week after week, this is her fourth class with me, it finally came to me that I have some tools that may help her break the cycle of continual drama in her life.

Looking back on my life, I can see now that I was once addicted to lots of drama. I don’t think I’m alone in that. After all, it’s drama that sells in the media. My teen years and early twenties were filled with one crisis after another that would eat away at what little self-esteem and peace of mind that I gathered during the times of quiet. Finally in college, two wonderful mentors suggested that I begin keeping a journal and that I get involved in theatre. That was the beginning of a life long climb out of the vortex of pain, fear and suffering. It seems ironic that acting helped me reduce the drama in my life, but I used it as a tool rather than as a way to create more angst. I have been grateful for those mentors and their suggestions. Using those tools has helped me come to an extremely peaceful place in my life. But my student helped me see that, in a way I have become peaceful, but in another way I still have lots of work to do.

Because of this student, I realize that there are times when my first reaction to a situation is to go back to those old feelings that I’ve worked so hard to expunge. I’m now determined to do another round of letting go of old habits, for that is what I believe all our negative emotions are.

One of the things I love about working at home is the fact that I don’t have to be immersed in other people’s negative stuff all day everyday. It’s difficult for me to maintain my calm in public sometimes because I’m highly empathetic. Just a few weeks ago I forgot to put up my guards when I atttended the convocation for the associate faculty and I got really riled up in one of the break out sessions over stuff that doesn’t really matter. It took me a while to get over that. So, I have lots of work to do to be calm and peaceful no matter what the situation and this students is reminding me that the work is always on going.

Fear is never a good state to be in, nor is guilt, or suffering. If I can help one student, and myself let go of those feelings, then I’ve done something helpful for more people in our circle of influence.

I’ve decided that I’ll present her with a gift of a journal during Wednesday night’s class. Maybe she’ll begin to feel better if she writes her troubles down like I did. It’s definitely worth a try.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2015

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Plumbing the Depths

“I follow four dictates: face it, accept it, deal with it, then let it go.”- Sheng Yen was a Buddhist Monk.

“Your life is an occasion, rise to it.” – Mr. Magorium, a fictional character from the 2007 film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and was played by Dustin Hoffman.

Recently, Julie Luek wrote an interesting blog post on She Writes, a social networking site for writers. The title was [MAKING THE LEAP] FIVE REASONS EVERY WRITER SHOULD JOURNAL. It got me thinking about my own journaling experiences, and why I’m driven to plumb the depths of my soul. A journal is one tool I use to do that. It’s been a fantastic tool and over the years I’ve grown from simply whining and complaining in my journal, to seeking it out when I need to get clarity. I ask questions and get answers in my journal. My self deceptions are stripped away in my journal. I face myself in my journal. However, as I look at who I am, I know that I’ve always been driven to strip away the layers of ego and discover my true self.

I’ve used a lot of tools on my quest. Books and movies are among them. Even current events can send me off on a journey of discovery. Today, I’m thinking about Syria. It’s just the latest in an interminably long line of incidents where humans lash out at other humans because they’re frightened, hurt, lonely and think there isn’t enough to go around. I wonder if we’ll ever grow up as a species and turn away from such violence against each other. And that brings me back to one of my self-discovery tools: Movies.

You might think that the tragedy of current events juxtaposed along side something as seemingly trivial as a movie, is ludicrous. Just keep reading and see if you can follow my logic.

Movies can be an immensely powerful way to help change our perspective. One of my favorite movies which does this, is The Razor’s Edge. (I’m referring to the 1946 version. I’ve never seen the 1984 version based on the same storyline.) It’s based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It begins right after WWI, and ends during the Great Depression. Maugham based the main character, Larry Darrell, on someone he met after the war. Larry Darrell is a man in search of himself. He’s looking for something that not many of his wealthy friends can see or understand, but Maugham finds him intriguing and follows his journey with great interest. At the beginning Larry is engaged to the most lovely woman of their circle, Isabel Bradley. But something drives him to leave her and begin a quest to find himself. She, of course, can’t understand how he could leave her. She’s vain enough to think that living with her beautiful self should be enough for any man. And that’s the relationship that shows the main conflict between those who desire nothing more than to maintain the status quo and those who are driven to find answers to the big questions in life. Larry Darrell seeks enlightenment. Isabel just wants to be comfortable and admired.

I bring up this movie, because I think it reflects what’s happening in our world now. It’s not that the two sides of the coin haven’t always been there. I think there are just more people on the side of taking the journey of self-discovery, like Larry Darrell did, than ever before. Those people who don’t want change, like Isabel Bradley, are fighting with claws drawn to keep things the way they’ve always been. But nothing ever stays the same. Humans are born explorers, only now the final frontier is inside ourselves.

I don’t have any answers as to how to end the bickering and violence in the world, except to encourage anyone who has the burning desire to discover who they really are, and find inner peace, to follow their heart and begin the quest. The tools, people and experiences will present themselves once you make the commitment. I know that from personal experience. You don’t need a guru, or teacher to guide you. Everything is inside you.Tough times will arise along the way. But in the end, you’ll never regret your decision and as you find yourself, you’ll help all of us find a more peaceful world.

Memories of India

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” – Steven Pressfield

Seventeen years ago this month, Barry and I arrived home from our three month trip circumnavigating the globe. It was a trip of a lifetime. The lessons I learned have been invaluable to my personal growth. I would not have been able to understand some of the things that happened to me without my journal.

Barry and I were reminiscing about our trip the other day, and we both agreed that, it’s India we think of most often. India was the most challenging place for us to be. The contrasts were so stark, modern high rise buildings with cardboard villages at their base, people sleeping on the street, whole families riding on one scooter, the din of traffic, the brilliant colors of the women’s saris, the hands out stretched waiting for baksheesh. To say we experienced culture shock is putting it too mildly. I experienced sensory overload. Thank heaven for my journal to help me organize the chaos of emotions I experienced every day we were there.

Last month at our book club meeting, I related an experience from those days in India that I’m just now understanding. I’ve written many pages in my journal over the years trying to understand my feelings about this incident. Something about the book we’re reading, Women Who Run With the Wolves, and the course of our discussion made me relate the story. Here’s what happened.

Barry and I were walking down the sidewalk in Delhi, headed to the government tour office to arrange our trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I felt a light brush on my elbow. I’d seen the mother and her small child sitting near the wall that surrounded the lush grounds of a four star hotel. As we passed, the mother sent the child to beg for money. The touch was so delicate. I wanted to turn and look at the tiny girl, but I ignored her. The day before, we’d taken the government sponsored tour of Delhi, and our guide had cautioned all of us to ignore beggars when they approached us. Even to look at them would invite them to press harder for money. If we acknowledged them, or gave them money, we could be mobbed by others wanting money too. Tourists had been seriously injured and even killed in such situations. My heart was broken and I cried. I cry still when I think of that little girl’s light touch.

One of the women asked, “Why do you feel so bad? Was it because you didn’t give her any money, or was it because you have so much and she so little?”

“No. The reason I felt bad was because I wanted to look into her eyes and see her. All I could do was send out a prayer for her.”

“But at least you did that. Most people wouldn’t even do that.” the other woman said.

Yes, at least I did that. Prayer can be a powerful thing. Maybe it helped the girl in some way. All I know is, the brief encounter with that little girl continues to teach me something. I hadn’t been able to articulate what it was about that encounter that still haunted me until that day. Now I know. I wanted to let that girl know, I acknowledged her existence. I think of her often and every time I do, I send up a prayer for her. She must be a grown woman by now. I wonder what her life is like and if she knows that she’s much more than her life circumstances. I think of her as changing the world in some profound way. She certainly changed my world in ways I would never have imagined. I guess I was ready for the lesson she was teaching.

That brings me back to my practice of keeping a journal and now this blog. We can learn important lessons without writing about them. But, I think it’s important to do the inner work necessary to understand what we’ve experienced, then share what we’ve learned with others. We never know who we’re going to affect. We never know the change we’re going to bring about. I don’t let anyone read my journal. It’s my private friend a place where I can go to make sense out of confusing situations. However, after I’m gone, my friends and family members may read my complied journals and may gain some insights that will help them with their own challenges. I don’t expect my journals to affect large groups of people. Blogging is different.

Blogging is a more immediate journal. I’d resisted writing a blog for a number of years thinking I didn’t have anything important to share. Or maybe I liked the anonymity of keeping a journal. Once you publish a blog entry, your thoughts are out in the world and they can affect people for good or ill. Not only that, you invite comments back about what’s been written. I’ve hidden my true thoughts for so long that I was surprised when I felt the urge to express ideas that I’ve held inside for most of my life. Like the story about the little beggar girl and what I learned from her.

Now that I’ve been writing a weekly entry for three months, I find blogging helps me do deeper inner work. I feel good about sharing my personal outlook on life with others. I guess at this stage in my life, it’s time to share a little of what I’ve learned. I’m excited to say, I’m still learning.

The Smile that Hides

Sometimes a smile hides pain, instead of showing joy. I know this from experience. I was reminded of that the other day when I was watching The Best of the Oprah Show on OWN. The episode was with Dr. Robert Holden the founder of the Happiness Project in England. Five people had volunteered to take a happiness test. The audience was supposed to look at the volunteers, hear a little bit about their stories and choose the one they thought was the most happy. Then they’d find out if their choice was correct according to the test results. It was interesting that the person the audience thought was the most happy, ended up being one of the most unhappy of the group. Why did they think she was the most happy? Because of her big smile. When she said, “All day long I put on a happy face and people think I’m the happiest person alive, it’s a big lie.” That reminded me of a time in my life when my smile hid a big lie. 

 

I was attending the college sponsored by the church in which I grew up. It was the end of the day and I walking through the Student Union building headed back to my dorm, when I came upon Reed, a dear friend of my parents. He was attending a conference at the college. We chatted about my parents and how I was doing. At one point he stopped and gave me the most intense look. Then he said, “Your smile is hiding some deep pain. You’re very unhappy.” The truth of what he said slapped my emotions, but I wasn’t mature enough to acknowledge that he was right. I was terribly unhappy. He was kind and told me that it was okay not to tell him what was going on, but I should find someone to talk to. 

 

When I got back to my dorm room, I sat and thought for a long time about what Reed had said to me. In that moment I faced the rage that had been building up over the past few months. I was angry at three or four students who were harassing me about being the only woman who had declared  Religious Studies as a major. Who gave them the right to tell me how to live my life?

 

Here’s a little background information to help you understand my position. It was the mid-70s. The church I belonged to didn’t ordain women as ministers. The church has a lay ministry, and often students who want to be ministers and possibly work for the World Church at headquarters, are Religious Studies students. So, naturally, everyone thought I was declaring my intention to be an ordained minister in the church. I’m not that much of a rabble rouser. My interest was purely personal and academic. I was and still am interested in the subject. I’m interested in how humans interact with and are influenced by the Divine. I was also on a personal journey of discovery. Whether or not the church decided to ordain women wasn’t foremost in my mind.  

 

Meeting Reed in that hallway was a profound experience. He woke me up to the deep pain I felt at the daily harassment I faced. I took his advice and tried to talk to the Campus Minister. He was sympathetic, but couldn’t answer my questions. Maybe I wasn’t articulate enough, I don’t know. All I remember was that talking to him made me feel more alone. 

 

Not long after that, someone, I don’t remember who, suggested I buy a notebook and start writing down my feelings. Thank Heaven for whoever that was, because my journal saved me. Once I began writing, my loneliness began to recede. Slowly my perspective changed. I learned to forgive those young men who thought I was broken. Something else happened too. I realized what others think about how I conduct my life isn’t very important.

 

My journal saved my life. In it’s pages I found a friend who would listen without judgement, and I gained new perspectives about myself. Now after 35 years of writing, I can say that I’m happy with my life. When I smile at people, it’s genuine. I don’t have to use it to hide my pain.