by Max Sirak
Would you soar through the skies flying as most our feathered friends do?
Would you lord over light, bending beams this way and that, going invisible, and launching lasers?
Would you opt for elemental mastery? Controlling fire, air, wind, or water could definitely have its perks.
Would you wish to wrangle the weather? No more rained-out picnics, bike rides, rounds of golf, beach days, etc. doesn't sound bad. Ideal conditions for all outdoor outings would be swell.
Wielding weather was always my choice when I was kid. I remember lying in bed at night and thinking how much better it'd be if I could just make it snow instead of hoping the meteorologists on TV were right. Then school would be canceled whenever I felt like it, whether the flakes fell or not.
Now, my answer is a bit different. If I could choose to have any superpower it would be the ability to travel by teleportation. No more airfare. No more gas stations. No more traffic. No more delays. Just close my eyes and pop.
Italy for grocery shopping (and morning espresso with Abbas). Back to the States for a late breakfast with Tim. Over to San Francisco to see nieces and nephews. Happy hour in DC with Jonah and Rachel. Bounce back to Europe for a bottle of Bordeaux or to pick up a port from Portugal, depending on my mood. Then on to Ohio for home-cooked dinner before calling it a night under the Colorado sky.
Now, what if I told you (Yes. You. The person reading these words.) you do have a superpower. You'd laugh and think I was crazy, right?
Call Me Crazy
We all have a superpower. Every person you've ever met, loved, hugged, and hated has been gifted with an extraordinary ability. However, because it comes so naturally and we've been using it for so long, we take it completely for granted. We accept it as automatic and entirely forget its impact and influence.
Our superpower is storytelling.
I don't mean composing epic tales and enticing entertainment. What Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Wilde, Autin, Tolkein, Lucas, Rothfuss, Tartakovsky, and so many others have done and are doing is incredible. From fiction to film, there probably hasn't ever been a better time to escape and indulge.
But, the storytelling I'm referring to is the kind we do all day, every day. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and our circumstances shape us. The words we use to explain our lives affect how we feel, where we go, what we do, and who we are.
Seeing Our Superpower
We are so good at using our storytelling superpower we don't even realize how often we do it. For instance, close your eyes, step away from the screen (or put your phone down), and think back.
– How did you come to be where you are right now?
– How did you end up residing and working where you do?
– How did you become the you person are?
– Why do you live the life you do?
Chances are, for each one of those questions, you began recounting a story in your mind. “A led to B because of C.” And, so we go, on and forth, down the alphabet until we arrive at the present moment. This is our narrative bias.
Global And Local Examples
We all use stories to help us make sense of the big and complex. It happens when we think about world events. It happens when think about our own lives. In David McRaney's book, You Are Now Less Dumb, he looks at both.
“For instance, documentaries, books, and films about World War II present it as a story with a definite beginning and an end. In truth, nothing has a beginning and an end. World War II is a vast, blurry labyrinth of causes and effects, a dense morass of confluences with an infinite number of initial conditions and effects that are still reverberating in everything humans are doing across the planet. A good narrative carves a path through that mess, and within the confines of that path, things make sense. This is the basis of your narrative bias. When given the opportunity to make sense of life on your own terms, you prefer to both tell and hear the details in story form.”
And, closer to home, we've got our identities. McRaney continues, “The self is not real. It's just a story like all the others, one created by your narrative bias. After all, you are just a pile of atoms.”
Not only are we just a pile of atoms, but we're a pile of atoms which constantly replaces itself. We're all aboard Theusus' Ship.
But, because of narrative bias, I feel as though I'm the same person as the boy lying in bed 25 years ago wanting to control the weather, even though every cell in my body has come and gone many times over.
Let's Turn Off Our Superpower For A Bit
If we let go of our narrative bias, strip away all the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world, things can get bleak.
We're born. Stuff happens. Some we do. Some is done to us. We die. This is the story of our lives if you…well…remove the story.
But we almost never do.
We arrive. We participate in certain events. We engage our imaginations. We forge connections. We find words. We create stories. We use these stories to make sense of events and ourselves. Then, when it's our time, we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Notice, at no point, do we ever discover our stories out there. They don't exist in the external world waiting to be found. We invent them internally. Using our imaginations and our words we interpret the events of our lives and decide what they mean.
This is where things get fun. This is where the magic happens. This is where our powers become super. Because, once we realize how much of our lives are influenced by the stories we tell about ourselves, we can change the ones we don't like. What's more, we have the power to re-interpret events. Ascribing new meanings to old events allows us to change our past.
It's About More Than Us
It's bad enough we forget about our superpower, coasting around on autopilot, and telling the same tired (possibly harmful) tales about our own lives. Except, it doesn't stop there. We recklessly misuse our power all the time. Especially when it comes to others.
As much as we don't like to admit it, the world doesn't revolve around any of us. We are each a single character, a player in a game of billions. Every one of us lives his or her own life, feels like a main character, and wonders why all these lesser characters are so dumb and in the way.
The stories we make up about strangers usually suck.
When we're trapped in traffic, look to our left, and see someone holding a sign asking for money, what do we think? Is it, “Wow. I bet he or she is suffering. I've been through tough times so I'm going to help”? No. It's “Get a job, lazy bum. Life's hard. Suck it up. Serves you right for being a junkie.”
Or, when we're stuck standing in line at the post office and a fellow confined consumer emphatically sighs in disgust, what goes through our minds? Is it, “I know you're feeling frustrated. There are a million things I'd rather be doing too…” No. It's “Oh my god. Shut up! You aren't helping. I know you don't like being here. No one does. Get over it.”
Here's Where We Need To Pause
Right now, at this instant, we know nothing about the lives of these people. These secondary characters are sharing our circumstances. That's all we know. Yet we make up stories about their lives. And these stories influence our actions and reactions.
While thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, I chanced upon two videos which illustrate the point.
The first comes from Alain de Botton's School of Life. If you don't have the full five minutes, skip ahead to 2:57.
The second is an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace commencement speech. Watch it all. It's worth it. Or, jump ahead to the 3:22 mark, if you're tight on time.
Voltaire may have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” many years before most of us heard Uncle Ben say it to Peter Parker in Spiderman. But who said it doesn't matter. It's truth does.
Storytelling is our superpower. How we use narrative bias matters. Don't be a villain.
2) By Deutsche Fotothek, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20043563 (license)