Changing Stories

During a session of psychotherapy, a woman of forty who left her husband for another woman said to me briskly, "I've read enough to know what love is." I no longer remember what she thought love was or where she went from there but I remember her one line precisely: "I've read enough to know what love is."

Donald Williams, Jungian analyst (Boulder, Colorado)

from a work in progress

During a session of psychotherapy, a woman of forty who left her husband for another woman said to me briskly, "I've read enough to know what love is." I no longer remember what she thought love was or where she went from there but I remember her one line precisely: "I've read enough to know what love is." She was right. We learn what love is—from parents, friends, lovers, rivals, books, magazines, teachers, filmmakers, and of course, from therapists. My son at fourteen said it this way: "I like to see romantic movies because I learn something new every time." He's adding to the love stories he already knows—just as we all do when we still enjoy an ounce of curiosity, a spark of imagination. We all make up love as we go.

We are pliable creatures. We bend to the stories we are told. When my mother warmed up with love and told me how good I was, I looked for more ways to go on being good. My father didn't seem to have a story for me, so I adapted to the story I got to know best, my mother's story. As far along as high school I acted good. I stayed within the bounds of my mother's lineaments and was chronically nice. The "good" story was hard to shake even when my peers teased me and I was sick of it. Being good was too firmly linked to being loved and to loving well. I spent a long time dismantling the "good" story and working at new stories.

When we're not listening to stories, we're telling them to others or silently composing and reciting them inside. We shape the world with the stories we tell. We are either persuading others or being persuaded, for example, that the world is just, that progress is good, and that the good will triumph. We want to believe that technology will save us, that wealth trickles down to the poor, or that the millennial Rapture is on its way. We keep trying to believe such stories despite the facts. Meanwhile, technology vastly complicates our lives, money defies gravity and flows upward, and the Rapture, prophesied for October 28, 1992, missed the mark again—so did the prophesied October 92 California earthquake expected to make beachfront property out of Nevada.

We construct our world with stories. We define ourselves and reality itself with public and private stories, with conversations and internal monologues, through printed words and projected images, and with just plain talk. We are forever telling stories that determine what we believe, what we feel, and how we act. The stories we believe may send us on heroic quests for knowledge and adventure, on sacrificial missions of the heart, or down more than a few cockeyed paths. Perhaps we tell a timid story that keeps us safely at home, guaranteeing that no one will dare to disrupt our routines. They know and we know how busy we are, how necessary our work is, or how just the thought of flying strikes panic in our hearts.

Our love stories can convince us that love is worth any sacrifice, too dangerous to touch, or forever withheld. Some stories establish us in positions of power—they assure us of success—while others lock us in prison cells with hopes of parole for good behavior.

All stories have consequences. Some stories, like arrows, can pierce the body, leave permanent scars, or be fatal. Other stories work like buckets at the well and keep bringing up the fresh water that keeps us alive. All stories will nourish some dreams and neglect others. They either help us on our way, sweep us off course, or entrap us. Never underestimate the power of a story. Some stories vaccinate us against disease. At other times the story may be the virus itself, a virulent suspicion or hatred ready to infect adults and families and even to corrupt and destroy a nation. Stories are not neutral. Certain ones, however, may read like embodiments of the laws of physics showing us how this causes that and that reacts with equal and opposite force to this. Like mathematical formulas for character and fate, these stories calculate the trajectories of bodies in motion, bodies like our own.

Whether an epic, a novella, or a "B" script, it helps us to know the stories we live and tell. It helps when we can gain even a little editorial control.

The world we live in balances somewhere between stone hard facts and persuasive fictions. We create the world with our stories but these stories are constructed from mostly real things. We build our stories with observed passions, documented facts, births and deaths, brick and mortar, a little light and shadow. Sometimes our stories seem irresistible—they can make or move mountains and with luck even achieve peace between enemies. Who knows what a small well-crafted story may do—scientists tell us that a butterfly can stir the air in Peking and cause wind storms in New York.(1) Sometimes, however, the world won't give an inch or care a whit about our stories. Enlightened Zen monks can break their feet against illusory rocks from morning to night.

Any convincing story we hear or tell will reorganize the world. A good story will change the past and refocus our memory. When someone saw, for instance, that children of alcoholics dissociate and inventively overlook the alcoholic haze and chaos, from that moment on people began to remember their childhood and their parents differently. When Martin Luther King, Jr. opened our eyes to racism, we couldn't close them again. We can't remember the past now without remembering racism, and we can't ignore it as it persists today. A good story changes the past, the present, and our vision of the future. With what we say, we either break or forge respectful bonds between ourselves and strangers. Our stories either spread peace or enmity. For these reasons, it is important to look at the stories we're telling—the old stories that still shape our personal and collective lives and the new stories that we might use to educate our hearts.

Copyright 1995 Donald Williams. All rights reserved


1. James Gleick, Chaos (New York: Viking, 1987), p. 8.