Think of the many roles you play from day to day. What comes to mind? Spouse, employee, parent, student, friend? Maybe more obscure roles popped into your head. As a teacher, I think of myself as a coach, juggler, actress, counselor, parent, and sometimes janitor. But few of us think of ourselves as storytellers. The fact is, we tell stories every day about many different subjects, but most frequently about ourselves. I tell my husband stories about my day at school; I tell my boss a story via email about a difficulty I’m having with a student; I tell girl friends stories about the great deal I got on my new shoes. We are such storytelling people that our brains even create stories for us while we sleep.
Narratives are so firmly entrenched in our psyches that we hardly notice their presence or their power in our lives. Nor do we notice our primary audience for all of these stories: ourselves. When we tell a story about ourselves to someone else, we are listening in, and we tend to believe what we hear. How does that work exactly? How can we possibly be influenced by our own self-narration?
Well, first of all, we have to come to terms with the fact that all human-generated stories are fictionalized. I don’t mean that we’re inveterate liars, just that we’re smooth and well-practiced editors. Think for a moment about “reality” television. Any rational person knows that there’s very little that’s “real” about these shows. They may not always be scripted, but they are always edited. This means that the shows’ editors sit down with hundreds or even thousands of hours of tape and choose the story they want to tell with the footage. They can emphasize whatever details they decide are important, and they can villainize or heroify anyone they choose. They can’t possibly tell the whole story in just an hour, so they have to pick a focus and include only the details that support that focus.
We do the same thing. And most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with that. We can’t possibly tell every single detail of a story, because that would include how many breaths we took, what color the lampshade was, the room’s temperature, and lots of other irrelevant details. We have to choose a focus, decide what’s relevant, and leave out everything that doesn’t matter. But editing is fictionalizing. We don’t choose a focus and decide what to keep or toss randomly; those editing choices are driven by our biases.
Self-narration has taken on a whole new dimension with the emergence of social media. The limited length of tweets and status updates forces us to hyper-edit stories and be extremely selective about what we tell. And of course, with such a vast audience (for some people, it’s close to every person they’ve ever known), many of us want to present ourselves in the best light. We gloss over the hardships and trials and emphasize–maybe even enhance–the best parts of our lives. We choose a profile picture, the image that supposedly defines us, and we don’t choose the pics that show our hair a mess or broccoli in our teeth. We choose what information we include about our lives, and we typically don’t include the summer we spent working at the the gas station. We write about enjoying good wine at the tapas bar, but not the recent late-night Big Mac run; we disclose hot dates but not heated arguments; we proclaim great accomplishments but not profound disappointments. We live in a world that revolves around us and the more-or-less-fictionalized stories we create about ourselves.
The typical narrative goes something like this: “I’m a happy, fulfilled, content person. I have a great life.” The people who use this narrative only disclose the events, conversations, and photos that support it. They leave out all of the unpleasant or even just the mundane stuff of everyday life. The prevalence of this happy narrative has led to a phenomenon called “Facebook envy” in which people become depressed or discontent with their own lives because everyone else seems to have such a wonderful, exciting life. However, the happy narrative is the most common story, but it’s not the only one. There are also those who choose a negative focus and include very few of the good things that happen to them. They use the negative events in their lives to garner attention from other people, and they are adept at selecting words and concepts for their status updates that they know will generate the most responses. The most aggressively negative will work to make other people feel guilty for the positive things they post. The positive people feel that they’re creating a better world; the negative people feel that they’re being more authentic. The interesting thing is that both extremes are completely focused on the self; it just so happens that one version screams “Look at me–I’m happy!” and the other version screams “Pay attention to me! I’m miserable!”
What social networks create is a new kind of narcissism: a deep, persistent obsession with the self. What makes this brand of narcissism different from, say the Greek myth of Narcissus from which the word “narcissism” originated, is that in the past, narcissistic people saw themselves as being at or near the TOP of society. The new narcissism places people directly in the CENTER of society. People get the impression that when other people say or do things, it is always in reference to them. She’s talking in a low voice with a friend? They must be talking about me. He invited them out to lunch? It was so they could exclude me. She’s telling me about her great weekend? It must be to make me feel bad about having a boring weekend. More so than at any other period in history, we can truly label this “self-centeredness.” And I also think more people suffer from it than in times past. Peasants in the middle ages knew exactly who they were. Unless they were completely disconnected from reality, they couldn’t invent a persona for themselves and live in it for very long; harsh truth would quickly intervene. But in the modern world, and especially online, you can style yourself as whomever you want for however long you want. You can Photoshop your pictures, rewrite your story, and live deep inside your self-narration indefinitely. You can get hundreds, even thousands of people to believe your stories, and pretty soon, you’ll start to believe them too.
Because amazingly, self-edited stories have the power to persuade us to think differently about our lives. Through the stories we tell ourselves, we can rewrite the past, distort the present, and shape the future. This can be as helpful as forgetting a wrong done to us or as devastating as creating a wrong where none existed. I’ve seen people rewrite their own personal histories and turn a nearly idyllic childhood into a wasteland of injustice and pain. I’ve also seen people pretend like their lives were nearly perfect and ignore the bitterness that was eating away at them. Most people have no idea how powerful the human imagination is. Self-narration, if unchecked by reality, can quickly distort events and cause us to battle demons of our own making. If we withdraw too far into our self-constructed worlds, we can quickly lose sight of what’s real and what’s not. As I explored with my students the madness of King Lear in AP Lit this year, I realized that insanity is merely a highly distorted view of reality. Sanity exists on a continuum, and the further we drift from what’s objectively real, the more insane we become. The most sane person has the strongest, clearest grasp on what’s true; the most insane person imagines people, places, and events that aren’t there.
We don’t invent truth. Reality is objective, not subjective. Narratives are only one piece, not the whole puzzle. So the first and most important antidote to getting lost in self-narration is to listen to what God has to say about us. He is the Master Storyteller; it is His story that we are living, and the more we live it in reference to Him, the more the positive AND negative aspects of our lives will make sense. What He has to say about us leads us first to despair over our sin but then to great hope in the redemption He provides. When that truth intervenes into our twisted, warped perspective, it shines light on every aspect of our stories and overcomes the power of self-narration. In light of His truth, we can neither boast in ourselves nor linger in despair.
Another cure for self-narration is limiting time spent in environments that promote self-focus. I have to be especially careful with this, because the classroom can definitely make me feel like the world revolves around me. I’ve met teachers who have, in a sense, let teaching go to their heads. Being in a position where you can force everyone to be quiet, listen to you, and remember everything you say can quickly give you an overblown sense of your own importance. Online environments are particularly suited to self-focus. We have to be careful to not only limit our time on social networks (and yes, on blogs too) but to make sure that the content we’re creating isn’t entirely focused on us. We can use Facebook to send encouraging messages, keep up with other people, and share what’s happening in our lives, or we can use it to intensify the narcissism to which we’re already prone.
Finally, we need to listen to what the people to whom we are closest and whom we trust most are telling us about ourselves. Getting other perspectives is a great reality check and keeps us from going off the narcissistic deep end. Because ultimately, it’s love–living in God’s love for us and loving Him and our neighbors–that provides the only true and lasting center for our lives. The love of God has the power to crush false narratives and save us from our worst enemy: ourselves.