Constructing the self story

Posted: February 25, 2004 at 4:22 pm in stories

I was talking to a friend last night who passed along an interesting observation to me: that people actively seek out evidence to support their worldviews. I’ve always believed that our perceptions color our view of the world in a passive way; that we see what we expect to see. Where one person sees the wonders of science and evolution, another sees evidence of the Grand Design of the Creator. But I hadn’t ever really considered it something that people did actively. It’s interesting because it begs the question of how one can adjust one’s worldview to change one’s life in a desired fashion. What does it even mean to try to support one’s worldview?

In a totally separate conversation over AIM today, a friend and I were talking about the new Mel Gibson Passion movie, and he commented: “i’m really perplexed as to why people adamantly believe this is historically accurate”. My off-the-cuff response was: “these are people who’ve never taken a real liberal arts class in their life, so they don’t understand how history is constructed. history isn’t a recitation of facts, it’s a viewpoint – a construction of a narrative.” I thought it was a pretty clever thing to say at the time, but that’s it.

I later realized that these two separate quotes are conceptually linked. And the link is the idea of a self story, a narrative that we tell about ourselves. This idea of the self story is a large part of Orson Scott Card’s work, and I have been attracted to it for many years. Card’s view is that all of us have a vision of ourselves, one that we strive to support. We pick and choose pieces of our life to support that vision. An inescapable continuation of this idea is that nobody is evil in their own minds; they have constructed a self story where their actions make sense, no matter how inexplicable they are to the rest of the world (I allude to this in my rant about extremism). I’ve played with this idea in other forms before, but I want to return to it again in this forum and explore it a bit more.

Let’s start with the history quote. There’s a common saying that “History is written by the winners.” This acknowledges that there is no such thing as an objective history. A recitation of facts is not history, despite the lesson plans of our middle school teachers. A historian generally has a theory in mind, a narrative that they are trying to support, and they go looking for evidence for that theory. This was something I didn’t quite understand about history when I mused about this before, although I did apply the idea to literary criticism. But another quote about history also illustrates the point I’m trying to make: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana was not saying that we would literally relive the past, of course. He was pointing out that by learning from the stories that passed before, we can learn how to live better in the future.

It all comes back to stories. This is Card’s view of the world – he believes that what separates us as humans from animals is our ability to tell stories, and our ability to incorporate stories and myths into ourselves and make them part of our self story. Put that way, it sounds a bit detached, but let’s use the example of myths of America. One such myth is that promulgated by the NRA, that being an American is about being able to bear arms against our oppressors. Another is the nineteenth century doctrine of Manifest Destiny. People believe in these myths, take them to heart, and use them to define what it means to be an American. This is why one of the most powerful epithets that can be used in a debate is to be un-American, with the added confusion that the term means many different things, depending on which set of myths about America one subscribes to.

Getting back to the original discussion, what does it mean to actively seek out evidence to support one’s worldview? It means living our life in such a way as to support our self story, our ongoing narrative of who we are. If we think of ourselves as socially awkward, we will throw ourselves at difficult social situations, fail and then justify the failure by saying that it’s just who we are. If we think of ourselves as having bad luck, we will find a way to interpret events in such a way as to support that. My friend even posited cases like having a belief that all cars fall apart, and then driving one’s car into the ground to prove it. The point I’m trying to make is that we live our lives in accordance with our self-constructed narrative.

How do you change that narrative? If it’s self-constructed, why is it so hard to change one’s outlook? Why shouldn’t I be able to say “Poof! I’m more sociable!” I think that this can be attributed to lack of knowledge, habit and fear. Lack of knowledge, in that it’s hard to realize that one can take better control of one’s life. Card’s work also expresses this idea; in Speaker for the Dead, a character says “We [humans] question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.” If you have always assumed that you are a certain way, you never think to question it. Habit, because once you get used to doing things a certain way, it’s hard to change. You settle into a routine. And fear. Fear is the toughest one. What we’re talking about here is altering the self story. This strikes at the very core of who we are. We are our self story. So changing that means changing who we are at a fundamental level. This is justifiably scary – who are we if we’re not ourselves?

So it’s hard. I think there’s hope of doing it. But reconstructing one’s narrative in such a way as to make the change one wants without affecting how it integrates into the rest of one’s worldview is tricky to say the least. But taking control of one’s life can be empowering. Many works of fiction that I like explore this idea, with a notable one being V for Vendetta. Lois McMaster Bujold has a great quote along these lines from Countess Vorkosigan – something like (terribly paraphrased because I can’t find the quote right now) “If one accepts the consequences of one’s actions, then the corollary is if one desires some consequences, one better start taking action in such a way as to make those consequences happen.”

Anyway. This has degenerated into even less coherence than usual. I’ll pick up another time with a narrative-centric viewpoint of the world, applying the idea of narrative construction to everything from marketing to ourselves to government.

10 Responses to “Constructing the self story”

  1. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Filling in the blanks Says:

    […] I think it’s also interesting that when we don’t know something, we tend to assume whatever works to best preserve our worldview. We think the best of our heroes, and the worst of our villains. We almost would prefer not to learn the “facts” rather than disrupt our images. I have definitely noticed myself being afraid to go talk to speakers I respect after talks, for fear that my idealized picture of their brilliance will have to be replaced by the mundane realization that they’re just people. And I’d be loath to watch a documentary on what a good person Karl Rove is (not that one exists, but you get the idea). […]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Patterns, stories and communities || December || 2006 Says:

    […] So what makes a story a good general pattern? And how do we even evaluate the “good-ness” of a pattern/story? My evaluation metric is going to be whether a story sticks with people and influences their behavior. As usual on this topic, I’m influenced by Orson Scott Card’s story The Originist, which has the wonderful quote, “the vigor of a community depends on the allegiance of its members, and the allegiance can be created and enhanced by the dissemination of epic stories.” Stories create community. Becoming part of the community involves learning the origin myths and the identity stories and incorporating those into your self story. A great story is one which people take to heart, that changes their behavior, that causes them to self-identify as part of a community. […]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The Passion of the Christ || March || 2004 Says:

    […] In fact, everybody in the movie seemed dehumanized, lacking in true human motivation. They existed only to move the story forward towards an inevitable denouement. I think it would have been more interesting for everybody involved to be more human with appropriate motivations, rather than pieces being moved around a cosmic chessboard to achieve the result of crucifixion. Stories are interesting not for their details, but for their insight into how we think and what we believe. Stories without human motivations aren’t stories at all; they’re merely recitations of facts. The one human character in the film was Pontius Pilate, who at least got a line explaining that if the province were to descend into bloodshed again, he would suffer the consequences. […]

  4. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz || May || 2004 Says:

    […] I like the idea that scenario planning is centered around stories. Stories are one of the most powerful and compact ways to affect people’s behaviors. This is the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell would say. Stories tell us what to do, and serve as guides to our daily lives. Scenarios are a way of consciously constructing those stories in a way that is immediately relevant to corporate management. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading this specific book, because it doesn’t really have a lot of information; ipso facto, it’s a quick read, though. […]

  5. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Better living through conversation || April || 2007 Says:

    […] When I’m talking to friends, I’m not just reciting the events of my life. I’m struggling to put them into context, figuring out the narrative that ties them together, making sense of the chain of events so that I can understand what happened. In other words, I’m constructing my self-story. By telling it to somebody else, I’m explaining it to myself, but at the same time, the feedback that I get may encourage me to modify my understanding. For instance, if I’m talking about an interaction I had with a coworker, and I explain what they did and why I thought they did it, my friends will offer alternative explanations that may better explain the events. And I modify and retcon my story to incorporate that new interpretation. […]

  6. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Retconning life || May || 2006 Says:

    […] amusing how easy it was for me to construct a story that fits my previous patterns of behavior. The story of our self is always miraculously consistent, no matter how our motivations shifted and changed along the way. […]

  7. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Telling the story of our lives || May || 2007 Says:

    […] they’re talking about is creating the self story. But no computer can do that. They are operating under the misguided belief that facts alone tell […]

  8. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Social technologies || June || 2008 Says:

    […] about stories as I think they are the key to many aspects of human behavior, from community to identity. In this case, I think that stories serve the function of “latching” in the […]

  9. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken || February || 2010 Says:

    […] not imposed on people; instead, brands only derive meaning from how people incorporate brands into their self-story. Brands must spark a recognition within the consumer that the brand is a meaningful expression of […]

  10. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Coaching and feedback || January || 2010 Says:

    […] One key aspect of coaching is that it’s not just objective feedback, but also why things happened. I could learn how to shoot a basketball better by just shooting a lot of baskets, where my objective feedback would be whether I made the basket or not. But when I missed a basket, I wouldn’t know why. And when I made a basket, I wouldn’t know how so I couldn’t repeat it. I would try a number of different things, and only a few of them would work, so I’d be wasting a lot of time in experimentation. However, if I had a coach, they could watch me, tell me what I was doing right, and more importantly, why it worked, so I could start to internalize the correct techniques. My improvement would happen much faster, because I would be able to integrate the “story” of the right way to do things into my self story. […]

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