Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
uncovering the past, fighting shame, recognizing neurobiology hacking storytelling, acknowledging privilege, so that we can recognize our shared humanity: a personal journey in the background…
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” (-Maya Angelou)
It has taken five years, but I am going through my writings (whatever I can find from 2004 to present day). Raw data, it feels like, and parsing together from it a semblance of what seemed like lost timelines.
I am reminded, in this process, of Brené Brown, and revisited some of her works the other day. In her writing, she references many wonderful authors who study storytelling and the biases of the brain’s reward system for choosing particular narratives…. after all, our brains are pattern-recognition machines. She writes of Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, who “explains that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns… Unfortunately, we don’t have to be accurate, just certain.”
One of my favorite passages in a work of hers — “What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.” She then goes on to introduce another author I’m excited to explore further, Jonathan Gottschall (writer of The Storytelling Animal), who points out that “ordinary, mentally healthy people are strikingly prone to confabulate in everyday situations.” He argues that such kind of conspiracy based thinking “is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience.” In essence, we make up stories because we need to find reasons why things happen, particularly why bad things happen. To be able to take the complex nature of being human and distill it into a simpler narrative is soothing to the brain.
I appreciate how she writes that “many confabulations are less the result of health of memory issues and more about the interplay of emotion, behavior, and thought.” When such conspiracy theories or confabulations take place, it is really to protect ourselves, rooted out of fear. “When we depend on self-protecting narratives often enough, they become our default stories. And we must not forget that storytelling is a powerful integration tool. We start weaving these hidden, false stories into our lives and they eventually distort who we are and how we relate to others. When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships — we’ve got the story on repeat.” Brains like predictable things, they get dopamine surges from pattern recognition… and seeking to find the authenticity for myself, my call to others to recognize this very human phenomenon, underlies this desire to awaken a more aware, curious, and critical engagement of ourselves and the world around us. Why? Perhaps it is in the service of valuing authenticity, even if it isn’t an easy story, even if it ends up that being human tends to be a messy process.
To this end, I have been spending a great deal of time these years, and particularly these last weeks, piecing out everything from journal entries, old SMS/text conversations and social media posts. Why? Because when we do not consciously integrate our own stories into the fabrics of our lives, we suffer. We hide in shame, self-doubt, and allow other forces to dictate our stories for us. I’m done with that part. I am on the journey to make an integration that has been long overdue. And I want to make sure that I am not just writing the convenient story that is easy to recognize, either. Truth be told, the raw data looks uglier than I would like, and I am hunting more to look at around it for context.
With regards grief, it is “one of the most difficult emotions of the human experience.” She writes, “As as society, we have pathologized it and turned it into something to cure or get over. Owning our stories of heartbreak is a tremendous challenge when we live in a culture that tells us to deny our grief.” Writing has been a very important tool I have used in these years to process my own grief, loss, and feelings… but I identify so much with her conviction that the more difficult is for us to articulate our experiences to those around us that the more disconnected we become and feel.
In reading through over a decade of my own writing, I clearly see a shift in sharing less and less of my authentic experiences to those around me. Of course, these feelings led to further depression, and of course further withdrawal. In many ways I was not willing to share my experiences for fear they would compromise my own values, namely, my faith that all humans have the capacity for change, growth, and learning to be better and desire themselves to do so. I was too afraid of sharing my own experiences, for fear they would limit those who were involved to social judgment that would prevent their own growth. I suppose, in some ways, that is what love is about.
“Given the dark fears we feel when we experience loss, nothing is more generous and loving than the willingness to embrace grief in order to forgive. To be forgiven is to be loved.” Yet, forgiving is not “forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live.” This line feels like a balance beam I am walking across at the moment. I have tended to be more readily forgiving than honoring my own experience; I thought in forgiveness I would find peace. But it has not worked out *quite* that way… the piece that was missing was the acknowledgement of my own journey and path. And I am working to find ways to articulate that which are both aligned with my values, having the integrity of a more full picture now with enough elapsed time for perspective, and still honoring my own experience. I am giving myself a bit less than a year to hope to finish this process, in whatever way it comes out.
I find myself in a mostly mentor-less space, responsible for my own growth and learning… as I have been for quite some time. The death of my father was the loss of the biggest mentor-type figure I had. There’s been the death of a marriage, the death of relationships, including many with my own family members, and the seeming death of many friendships. Brown writes, “death is also beautiful because it makes room for new relationships — more honest connections between authentic adults who are doing the best they can. Of course, these new connections require emotional and physical safety. We can’t be vulnerable and open with people who are hurting us.” I can tell you that there has been much which resonated with this last part, both in my former marriage and within my family dynamic.
To be that vulnerable, and comfortable with our failures, or our losses, is important for all of us. Pema Chödrön writes, “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring…. In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience — our suffering, ur empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” (From The Places That Scare You.) In this way, I’ve seemed to always defer to reminding myself of the humanity and suffering another must be going through, particularly in order to be lashing out in hurt to others. But again, there I have struggled with simultaneously holding compassion with accountability. Moreover, it is also about recognizing those who have the capacity for compassion, and acting in ways which align with valuing compassion as a practice to embrace.
Lastly, we face privilege. Choosing what we do or do not see, choosing whom you do or do not see, choosing what news or events we do or do not see “is one of the most hurtful functions of privilege.” When we “stop paying attention to injustice” is a manifestation of privilege in a dangerous form. “And make no mistake, not paying attention because you’re not the one getting harassed or fired or pulled over or underpaid is the definition of privilege.” Essentially, choosing to look away because you’re not in the shit is an act of privilege. “Acknowledging privilege and taking action on injustice require constant vigilance,” Brown writes. Moreover, it is about “how the choice not to see someone fundamentally diminishes our shared humanity.” I have seen others turn away from loss or grief because they could choose to, or not pay attention to world events because they were not of those affected, or turn away from connecting. That is a valid choice for anyone as we are autonomous human beings; but I am compelled to gently remind one another that when we choose to do so it is privilege which allows it. Over time, repeatedly acting out of this privilege leads to disconnection from shared humanity.
So, I am writing. I hope that wherever this takes me, it is a place that reminds us of the unity of human experience. To quote Michel de Montaigne, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” In these years, it has become my understanding that it is ever more important to be our full, imperfect, learning and striving selves… so others can see that they are not alone, so that we can have a shared humanity. We need this sense of shared humanity if we are to face the challenges of the future together.