The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“I’m not very creative.” This was my statement to our staff, last fall during our staff retreat, when we were talking about ways in which we could bring more creativity to our work. Our wonderful, caring, thoughtful staff – they pushed back at me: “That’s not true, you’re very creative administratively. You come up with ideas in terms of doing new things administratively that would never have occurred to us.” My story of non-creativeness was very strong though. “Sure, ok, but that doesn’t count. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, or sculpt, or…” They kept pushing. “Is art really the only way that someone can be creative?” Me: “Ummmm….” <pause to think> “Hmmm.” <more thinking> “I guess not.” In my head, I understood the logic of what they were saying. My emotion, my body, my spirit was rebelling though. I was finally able to acknowledge, after they pointed out several specific examples, that it did seem like I was fairly creative in terms of leading the administration of the church.

Reflecting about this later, I totally get where my story of non-creativeness came from. Growing up, I was good at math, and school, and following directions, and not as good at the “typically creative” stuff, like drawing, painting, or any kind of typically artistic things. That was my sister, she was the free spirit, the painter, the drawer… the “creative one.” Me, I still draw stick-figures to this day. So I can see where this story comes from, and, I recognize now that I am indeed creative in other ways… and so I’ve worked on trying to change this story for myself since then. But even today, sitting here writing this, there’s still part of me pushing back – “but I’m not *really* creative.” That story I have is strong, it’s not going away easily. And this is not unique to me. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful – they can and do shape our experience of our lives and the world.

I’ve shared in a sermon before the experience of a former co-worker, Tom, whose family told him his whole life that he was impatient. That was the story he was told as a kid, and so it was the story he told himself – and acted out in his life – as an adult. He didn’t try working on being patient in most of his early adulthood, since he figured it was just who he was. He just continued to act impatiently… until he had children in his thirties, and decided it was important to him to be patient with them. Lo and behold, he discovered that he*could* be patient when wanted to be. By the time he was sharing this with me, his children were teenagers, and he had made enough progress that impatience was their story, not his. But it took a long time and a lot of hard work on his part to change his internal narrative.

The stories we tell – the reality-shaping stories we tell – aren’t just about ourselves either. Up until last year, the story we told at our Harvest Feast about the landing of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving was solely from a White European perspective, because that’s the story American culture tells us. Our history books today, the history we learn in school – it still usually doesn’t speak of the genocide our forebears committed in taking this land from the indigenous peoples. We’ve changed our Harvest Feast now to paint a more fully representative picture, and there are more and more people speaking out today about the tragedies inflicted on the Native American peoples than ever before, but our United States cultural story is still one of white triumphalism.

There are other stories that we tell as a culture, as a country, that are problematic as well. One of the most common ones is that we are a land of equal opportunity, that “anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps” – if they work hard enough. The reality, of course, is, that our starting conditions dramatically impact our chances of success in life. Growing up in poverty means you are far less likely to become wealthy than those born in the middle class, let alone those born into wealth. We love in our country to lift up individual examples of those who have risen from the poorest of the poor to gain great wealth in their lives in attempt to prove how this myth, this false story, is true – but the individual examples actually run counter to the broader statistical reality. Income inequality and social mobility are both decreasing in our country, and little is being done to shift the tide.

As we explore our October theme of Story together this month, I hope we can spend some time reflecting on our stories, and the truth, or lack thereof, that they represent. Not all stories we tell about ourselves are false of course, many of them are true. But are they all true? What stories of yours do think might need to be re-examined?

See you in church!

peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth