I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.
A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.
“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.
I currently have Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) on my headboard for a little bit of reading before bed. The book was not published during Pessoa’s lifetime, but was compiled and published after his death. It is a collection of Pessoa’s inner thoughts existing as diary entries, reflections on his life, disjointed feelings, and a set of observations about the world. The book includes incredibly written and translated passages like the following:
“The most painful feelings, the most piercing emotions are also the most absurd ones – the longing for impossible things precisely because they are impossible, the nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what might have been, one’s bitterness that one is not someone else, or one’s dissatisfaction with the very existence of the world.”
Pessoa is incredibly honest with himself through his writing and he seems to be able to interrogate every emotion and every thought he has. He is so good at it that it painfully tears him apart as he is unable to distinguish between himself, the natural world, the stories he creates of how it all ties together, and his unending awareness of everything inside and outside of himself.
His quote above stands out to me because I find such incredible inspiration and power in dreaming of large and almost unattainable things. At the same time, giant and ambitious goals terrify me, and leave me almost paralyzed, too afraid to take action but afraid not to dream. I constantly dream of things could have been different, of the steps and actions I could have taken to truly be on a path toward the greatness I desire, and dissatisfaction seems to lurk around every corner if I look for it. But like Pessoa, I recognize how vain and fruitless this way of thinking can be. There is a fine balance in life between believing in the potential of the future, and being paralyzed between the danger, fear, and monotony of every day life. Understanding how absurd our thinking is and recognizing the fallacies of our stories seems like a way to navigate between our ambitious goals and our defeating self doubt.
Greater awareness of who we are and the stories we tell ourselves can help us understand if our goals meaningful enough to make great sacrifices for. Recognizing how our narrative drives us gives us the ability to push back against our self doubt and allows us to craft a new framework that is not as limiting for who we are and who we want to be. We can even get outside the story of our goals and see what small actions we can take to begin to make progress toward our goals, defeating the paralysis we may feel. The recognition of the power of our inner narrative is the one thing that Pessoa seemed to be missing, and it also seems like the one thing that could have helped to change his fear and paralysis.
We spend so much time inside our heads, thinking about ourselves and what we are doing, feeling, and thinking, that it is easy to imagine that everyone is watching us and thinking about us. We get so caught up in our thoughts about ourselves that we forget that other people probably aren’t paying any attention to us. Most people are probably thinking of themselves the way we are thinking about ourselves. This is a phenomenon that psychologist David Elkind refers to as the Imaginary Audience and author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book Ego is the Enemy.
We constantly have a narrative about the world playing inside our head. We tell ourselves amazing things about who we are, emphasizing the positive traits we see and like in ourselves and comparing ourselves to others in a way that makes us look amazing. At the same time, however, we are likely to have a piece of ourselves that is overly self-critical, telling ourselves that we are not good enough, that we need to prove that we belong, and scaring us into believing that one mistake will reveal to the world that we are not actually as amazing as we make it look. In his book Holiday describes this phenomenon with a quote from the novelist Anne Lamott who describes this part of our ego as if it were a radio station playing in our head 24/7.
What is helpful from Holiday’s writing is how he breaks down what is really talking place in a tangled mess inside our mind. Describing all of these thoughts and complex emotions he writes, “Anyone-particularly the ambitious-can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line that separates our fictions from reality.”
Our ego buys into the narrative that runs in our mind without question. It loves the thoughts of greatness that we tell ourselves about who we are, but it is constantly acting in fear of losing those stories. Becoming more self-aware and learning that we do not need to constantly build our ego allows us to begin to step back and see the narration inside our heads for what it really is, an incomplete perspective and view of our place in the world. If we can recognize that the stories we tell ourselves are just stories, then we open up the possibilities for us to engage with the world on our own terms, without fear, without a need for self validation, and without the need to be someone that we think will impress everyone else. This allows us to take the small steps and actions that make us feel good and help us to actually accomplish things that matter and make a difference in the world.