“We carry our stories and they can become so airtight that we can suffocate ourselves with them.” ~ Lemn Sissay, Official poet of the 2012 London Olympics
S was not a fan of her Stepmom. S said she was a mean bitch from the moment she entered S’s life. Recently, they were talking about an event from S’s childhood, one that laid the groundwork for how S viewed her Stepmom. Except in this conversation, the Stepmom shared for the first time some of the context surrounding that event – things S had never known; things that completely changed S’s perspective about both the event itself and her Stepmom’s role in it. As it turned out, S’s Stepmom had just handed her a puzzle piece that S didn’t even know was missing to a pivotal moment from her past. And in receiving it, S realized that all these years the painful story she’d told herself about it was built, at least in part, on a rotten foundation.
This new information was a gift. It threw S into a state of reflection, forcing her to confront the story she’d angrily hissed to herself all these years to the point that it had become part of her lore. The story had claw marks on it from all the hanging on.
This sudden confrontation with the fact that parts of her story weren’t true shifted her perspective about it, and she softened toward her Stepmom. But more importantly, it liberated a piece of herself from a past wounding and made her wonder about the veracity of the other stories she told herself about her life and who she was. She realized that, if she wanted, this could be the beginning of true liberation, because if this story wasn’t true, maybe other stories she had told herself weren’t true either, and she could let them go and leave them behind.
I’ve been thinking about this lately – the stories, fears, and habitual reactions we carry that originate from and are shaped by old wounds. They can take us by surprise, crop up in current situations and throw us into a tailspin. But if we become willing to look at them closely, we see that it’s the deep, old fears (specters from the past telling us what “this thing” means) that are twisting a neutral situation into something more threatening.
Life’s events get filtered through a lens created by the sum total of our past experiences. We each have one especially crafted for us – a lens cut and polished from the hardened and compressed layers of our unique set of experiences laid down one atop another atop another over a lifetime. They are things like the beliefs our parents pressed into us; how our parents treated us; our position in a sibling line-up and how that affects how we relate to others and they to us; betrayals as well as acts of great kindness and generosity; things we’ve bought into from society; the parts of ourselves we’ve managed to develop into either good, solid qualities or nagging insecurities; the baggage we drag along from past relationships; etc. This lens is the filter through which we interpret the things that happen to us. It informs every story we tell ourselves about said happenings.
Some of life’s formative experiences are undeniably terrible and scarring, and we relive the trauma of them as we recount the stories to ourselves in remembrance. Some of them seem bad, feel really bad, but you get a little distance from them down the path and you realize it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to you because of where it forced you in your pain to eventually go.
But if we aren’t careful, we can get stuck in some places. We can get really attached to the stories we told ourselves about what happened in the past and what it surely must have meant about who we are and our worth in the world. It’s both unsettling and liberating when we get shown in no uncertain terms that what we thought was true wasn’t. Becoming acquainted with our own blind spots is terribly uncomfortable, but awareness is the first step toward changing things, and letting go of a fiercely held point of view (and perhaps simultaneously our fear about something). New evidence or context about something can kick open the door of willingness just a crack so I can consider that, if I was wrong about this, what other things might I have been wrong about that I can let go of now because they no longer serve me?
(If you want to hear about someone’s willingness to let go, listen to Lemn Sissay’s story. It’s laced with the incomprehensible pain and loss he experienced as a child betrayed by his religious-zealot foster parents. As he said, “It’s not that I’d had the rug pulled from beneath me as much as the entire floor had been taken away.”)
“We are our story. Family is a group of people building story for each other… Whether I talk about it or not, [it] still is the making of us. We carry our stories and they can become so airtight that we can suffocate ourselves with them. And I slowly realized that I was starting to suffocate under the story of this suffering boy…I realized I was doing that because I was blaming people. If I can’t forgive them, then what does that say about me, about my growth and my development? …I don’t believe that I’ve made it. I believe that I’m making it. I believe that I’ve found my past so I can live in the present.”
Forgiveness and letting go is no favor, we do it only for ourselves. We do it to stop the toxic internal corrosion that continuing to hold on does to us. That is the power of letting go of the stories from our past and resisting the urge to tell new stories in our present – it liberates and it restores.