The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve been thinking lately about my tendency to mythologize my life. Do all writers do this? Or is it just a human thing, a natural response to our innate storytelling instinct? That’s more likely. Whatever the reason for it, the moment anything happens to me, my mind sets to work crafting it into an ongoing narrative, another chapter in the Fabulous Life and Times of Katrina Swaim.

For example, last week, while out for a walk in a neighborhood about a mile from my house, I looked down a side street to see a small boy, maybe 5 years old, talking to an unseen person who had stopped their van in the street. My inner alarm immediately sounded. It looked just like a scene out of one of the many crime shows I’m addicted to, and I half expected to see a shadowy figure lurch out of the vehicle and drag the boy in, kicking and screaming, before tearing away with a screech of burning rubber. Immediately, I turned down this street, striding purposefully toward the scene, memorizing the license plate in my mind and staring at the van’s side mirror, hoping to catch the eye of whomever was within so they would know I was watching.

There was no squeal of tires, no sudden revving of the engine. When I was still about 20 feet away, the van’s driver simply drove off, casual and seemingly unalarmed by my intimidation tactics. As I drew even with the boy, he asked me, “Have you seen two little black dogs? They’re lost. Those people are looking for them.” I answered in the negative, and then said, “Listen, don’t talk to strangers or go near any cars that don’t belong to you, okay? It’s not safe.” He looked at me as if I was speaking another language, so I repeated, “That van—I know you wanted to help, but it’s not safe to talk to people you don’t know when your parents aren’t around.” It struck me then that I was also a stranger, so I moved on, uncertain as I walked away whether my interference had even been needed or if I had done any good at all.

By the time I got home, though, I was quite the hero. I had probably singlehandedly prevented a child abduction, and in my recounting of the incident to Paul, the van was noticeably more menacing and my warning to the would-be victim more eloquent. It was no longer a Weird Maybe-Nothing Thing that Happened and was now A Story, one in which I came off as the fearless and wise protector of the innocent. I added it to the narrative.

Certain stories of my life have been told so many times that the actual memories have gone all squidgy around the edges, blurred and reshaped by the words I have built around them.

The time I met Dick Van Dyke.

The time I called the police because someone was trying to break in to the house where I was babysitting.

The time I tried to give myself a bikini wax.

The time I faced down my terror and climbed a mountain.

The time five friends and I walked away from a catastrophic car accident.

And on and on. All true. All grown faint through constant retelling.

In each case, the story alone remains, growing strong as it feeds on what is left of my recollection. Science supports this: according to a study by Northwestern Medicine, your brain slightly alters a memory each time you recall it, rerouting connections and distorting the tiny details in response to each mental retelling. I mourn the loss, but only if I notice it. Sometimes I don’t, so seamlessly do the words graft their conjured pictures into the messy threads of reality.

Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

It’s true, isn’t it? God created us to see patterns, to dig deeper, to find meaning in the minutiae of our daily lives, in events both big and small. Depending on our interpretation, on our retelling, that meaning can sustain us in our suffering and spur us on toward a better version of ourselves, or it can discourage us and lead us down the path to despair. That’s why the stories we embrace about ourselves are so important. We are, each of us, the protagonist of our own drama, the adventurer on the road to either glory or peril.

In the end, the events of our lives do have power, but so does the narrative we build to hold those events, the almost subconscious shaping and curating that simultaneously records and creates the tales of our odyssey. And like any power, it comes with the responsibility to wield it wisely. After all, in a very real way, we are writing our own ending.

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