Sometimes, storytelling reveals truth; sometimes storytelling hides truth from us.
Last week, for example, I encountered a student who had come by our offices to visit one of my colleagues, and I asked her how she was doing. Fine, she explained, except for these horrible allergies. It seemed as if all the trees in the District of Columbia had released their pollen simultaneously, and it was making her quite miserable. I responded sympathetically and didn’t think about it for the rest of the day.
But the next morning, I noticed that I was beginning to feel a heavy sinus pressure behind my eyes, like something was being inflated in there. Oh, no — presumably the pollen intensity that was affecting the student the previous day was now wreaking havoc on me. As the day went on, I felt worse and worse — achy and stuffy and chilly — until I gave in and took some acetaminophen and antihistamines to get some relief. Every few years my hay fever seems to hit really hard, and I figured this was going to be a particularly bad season.
Still, once the Good Friday holiday came, I pushed through my discomfort, relying on meds to subdue it enough to let me spend quality time with my family. Even long weekends are too short to waste wallowing in malaise. A little seasonal allergy wasn’t going to keep me from joining the kids for a long walk in the park or from serving a magnificent Sunday dinner.
By Tuesday, though, the real truth became clear: this was not an allergy, but a nasty, persistent cold. And the reason it became clear was: one by one, the other members of my family were coming down with it. How could they have avoided it? I had just spent the weekend touching all their plates and utensils.
The problem was in the encounter with the student last week. She told me she was suffering from allergies big time, and without thinking about it I let that statement be the seed of a story. When I started feeling miserable the next day, I assumed it was allergies, too. So the story that began unfolding in my head was all about allergies. Anything that fit that story — sneezing, exhaustion, the yellow-flecked windows around my office confirming the high pollen count — was noted and incorporated into the story, and anything that contradicted it — chills and fever, and the fact that my symptoms didn’t intensify when I stepped outside — was ignored or explained away. Once I’d started telling myself the hay fever story, it became a source of order and comfort. If I hadn’t encountered the student who (thought she) had allergies, I might have read my own symptoms more objectively, quarantined myself from my family, and saved them from 7-10 days of misery each.
The human brain is hard-wired to rely on storytelling to help us understand and impose order on the world. When it works, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s why we tell stories here at Figuring Out Fulfillment. But sometimes, because storytelling is so powerful and order so appealing, we allow ourselves to accept a story that isn’t actually true, just for the comfort of having a story. Maybe this is more likely during times of stress — so that, feeling ill, I allowed myself to jump to an unjustified conclusion more readily than I normally would have.
We’ve all seen people do this at work — the boss who makes up her mind and won’t be convinced otherwise, the co-worker who is blind to what seem to us to be obviously relevant details because they do not support his view of the situation. And who hasn’t allowed themselves to fall into the same kind of trap? Telling the right story can be clear after the fact; what is more difficult, but just as important, is learning to keep one’s eyes open to the many possible stories that could be told in the moment — so we can grasp when others might be telling themselves a different one, or so that we can teach ourselves to consider all the likely alternatives instead of fixating on a fiction.