The Story of Me

There is a classic tale of two siblings that is often repeated in Buddhist teachings.

Two sisters, identical in many ways, were raised by an alcoholic -- and at times, abusive -- father.

One sister went on to graduate school, married a wonderful, supportive partner, raised children of her own, and had a successful career doing something she loved.

The other sister started drinking as a teenager, moved on to drugs, dropped out of school, became homeless, and drifted from one abusive relationship to another.

When both were asked, "Why did your life turn out the way it did?"

They both answered, in spite of the diametrically opposed lives they had built for themselves, in exactly the same way: "Because my father was an abusive drunk."

And you know what?

…Both were right.


The stories we tell about ourselves are what define us.

The ways in which we choose to see our challenges chart the course for who we become in this world.

I read Trevor Noah's terrific memoir "Born A Crime" recently.

He tells tales of growing up in South Africa at a time when his very existence was illegal. He was born to a black mother and a white father, and interracial couplings were not outlawed.

If he was walking down the street with his mother and they saw any government authority, his mother would drop his hand and cross the street, lest she be seen with him and questioned as to the nature of their relationship.

Because of the systemic, institutional racism in South Africa, his mother's family lived in extreme poverty in the ghetto. Noah himself did not have much growing up. But the way he tells it, he was a rabble rouser and a hustler and a kid out to shake up the world.

Noah tells stories that make my heart hurt and would crush my spirit if they were mine.

And yet he manages to find the adventure in them, the sense of love and community, the lessons that taught him how to rise above.

His memories focus on the escapades he got into and how he learned to navigate this world where he wasn't supposed to belong.

South Africa has 11 official languages, and he learned a number of them, because he found that language allowed him to fit in where his skin color made him an outcast.

There are always two ways to look at a story - one that beats you down and makes you feel like you will never get back up; and one where you are heroic in the face of adversity.

Trevor Noah is a master at seeing himself as the scrappy kid from the ghetto who figured out how to get out, and who turned a seemingly impossible situation into an observatory for human nature and a classroom for prejudice. These became the hallmark of his comedy, and the launching pad for his career. 

I spent years in therapy rehashing all my childhood pains and dramas and traumas. I got so good at telling my stories - the ones where I was the victim, and my family the perfect storm of need and unresolved issues that crushed against me - that I have worn a groove into my brain with these ideas.

I identify with them so strongly that it's actually a herculean task to identify as the heroine of my own life.

And the trouble with these stories is that they become a filter through which we see the rest of the world.

Even now, situations that have nothing to do with my family get experienced through the lens of those early stories. I default to feeling like a victim, disempowered, waiting to be rescued.

We get attached to what we know, for better and for worse.

There are a lot of tools we can apply to start to dissolve the hold these stories have on us.

I'd like to suggest one for today.

Grad a pen and paper, and give yourself ten minutes to think about a time in your life where you felt defeated by an event or a person.

Now, imagine that the story doesn’t end with defeat, but rather with heroic accomplishment.

How can you turn that defeat into a lesson in your hero's tale? Can you see the sidekick who presented herself to support you?

Can you remember the wise older woman who showed you the way?

What tools did you pick up for your journey ahead?

Remember that a classic hero's journey is not an easy path. It is a treacherous passage from young and naive to bold and wise.

It is meant to test the spirit - but never to break you.

It is meant to give you the skills you will need to succeed in life.

It is meant to be difficult, but it is meant to embolden you and make you brave.


Can you see now how a moment of suffering may have defined you to be better than you ever thought possible?


Photo by Svetlana Pochatun on Unsplash