We Are All Unreliable Narrators

canstockphoto10603891The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.

Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.

I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.

This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.

canstockphoto6397204Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.

Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.

There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.

canstockphoto6433663The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”

One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.

canstockphoto5516626Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive.  When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).

There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.

The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.

canstockphoto12537336When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.

I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within –  that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.

Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:

Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. GinottThe communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.

31 Comments on “We Are All Unreliable Narrators

    • A Sub-Subtitle is “A Revolutionary Process for Eliminating Defensiveness, Liberating Honesty, Building Integrity, Inspiring Compassion At Home – At Work- In the Community”. I have found it to be so useful that I’m constantly recommending it. It really makes me think about how I say things, react, and engage with others. Usually I need to do a lot of work!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Nicely put and much needed. One of Mark Manson’s key premises in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck that we are always wrong. It’s not just that our memories are verifiably, organically unreliable; we simply cannot see or know the whole picture. Another good resource: The Art of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg.

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    • This is what I find so fascinating/disorienting about some of the online discussions I’ve seen – people so sure they are right, who couldn’t possibly be in the possession of the needed information. And if you throw in the butterfly effect, we have no idea what the consequences of our words or actions might be, so it behooves us to tread a bit lightly, not assume we know everything (or in some cases, anything). Thanks for the mentions of those other books. At this point, any and all resources might do some good. Or, at the very least, if we’re reading, our opinions stay in the cellar just a bit longer – proper aging and all that.

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  2. Yes, different perspectives can set you apart. I suspect in my family’s case this is partly because some memories are still too difficult to process and have been “buried deep”. As a defence mechanism it is not easy to contend with, and I now think it is not worth digging up the pain they do not want to face. The things that we have to look at and deal with are trouble enough.

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    • It’s an unfortunate thing that happens in many families. For us, by the time any of us would mature enough to sort things out, we spread to the four corners. With emotional and geographical distance, it’s unlikely as adults that we’ll reconnect. So, we make our families where we are.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am in full sync with you, although I do think my humor is quite tame to yours. I do get sarcastic though.

    This is an interesting topic for our time.

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    • My humor is an acquired taste. Or just tasteless. We’ve had several examples lately of violent humor in the news lately and the purveyors have been castigated. Fortunately, I’m not a public figure and more of a mumbling-under-my-breath kind of person. But I suppose if I’m going to believe language is important, then I have to pay attention to mine.

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  4. Interesting and very relevant post. I completely agree that the way we talk to others can also be violent and cruel. Our words, in addition to actions, carry tremendous weight and influence. Thank you for addressing these issues

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    • Of course with all that being said, I worry that people who do say the wrong thing aren’t being allowed room to apologize or restate what they mean. This is the age of the insincere apology, but people are so whip-quick demonized that no one has time to be more thoughtful and/or forgiving. I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but it feels like all human interaction is fraught with danger now, when it shouldn’t be.

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  5. Insights into false memories has been one of the more interesting things to come out of the field of cognitive psychology. Much of this work has been done by Elizabeth F. Loftus and has a profound impact on victim and witness testimony.

    False memories can be both events that never happened or the coloring of past events by details that are not true. The odd thing is that false memories are almost always the most vivid and detailed.

    So the takeaway is this, the memories that seem the most clear and the very ones that we feel strongest about – are the most suspect.

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    • It also depends on how you get your memories as well. Children will remember some things through their parents’ narrative or family photos, so it is a perspective outside of their own. When talking about siblings, developmental age, gender, all these things could make a single situation have multiple perspectives. In my case, I was the oldest – my brother remembers some things, but my youngest siblings have no recollection of some of my worst childhood memories. Our versions of family collide.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You are so right Michelle. We seem to have lost our ability (or willingness) to put ourselves in others’ shoes and see it from their perspective. Which, btw, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to change our opinion.

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    • There is a lot of talk about empathy these days, but I have been thinking about what that concretely means and how to get there. Like most life skills, we get there by starting with ourselves – acknowledging our flaws, understanding that we make mistakes and that we may not have all the answers. If we can see ourselves in all our imperfect glory and be forgiving, one hopes that we are able to see that in others and extend them the same kindness.

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      • It’s all so basic when you think about it. I can remember my parents having conversations like this when I was a very young child.

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  7. I agree with much of this, except your statement about citing behavior rather than people as being “deplorable.” This might work with children, who are still growing and maturing, but not with most adults, who are locked into their beliefs and defense mechanisms. The bumper stickers and t-shirts would still be there.

    But… I could be totally wrong.

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    • I think about the fact that when we label people and not actions, we don’t give them room to change. Even adults have that capacity. Think about being labeled something unpleasant. You have a couple of reactive choices 1) Get defensive and dig your heels in. 2) Go on the offense and attack. You’ll notice there is no number 3: be thoughtful about one’s choices and make a change. Why should they do that? You’ve already let them know that they’re irredeemable. When we focus on actions, people are left room to make different choices. Thanks, Pete – you got my brain gears going – might be another post altogether.

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      • This is great psychology, Michelle, and in most instances you’re probably right, especially regarding the raising of kids (I helped raise two of them). But the subtext of your message is politics, and politics is and always has been an ugly business. Politics is survival of the fittest, which is all about numbers 1 and 2 above. Today’s social media, talk radio, and 24-hour cable only exacerbate the reactive choices. I admire your optimism and altruism, but the guy with the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker, who is convinced the government wants to take away his shotgun, doesn’t care about thoughtful choices, or making a change, or whether it’s only his actions that are being criticized. Not as long as an organization like the NRA is whispering in his ear (I use this as just one example). You make a lot of sense, but you’re one of only a few roses surrounded by thorns, I’m afraid.

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  8. I enjoyed reading this and I believe you have a lot of optimism. America just fails to agree to disagree, really. With regard to your statement: “One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. ” — I’ve had to use this communication style as well. It’s really the way we say things, not what we say. Sapir Whorf.
    Powerful post. Thank you for your intelligent insight.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting. I argue with myself a lot regarding the importance of language. The hurts, though, that we tend to, are less bruises than the things said to us. How we impact each other is significant and we forget that in an era where language is constantly being manipulated to suit political ends.

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  9. Good, thoughtful blog. I like to use this example regarding perspectives: If you and I are sitting across a table from each other, we see totally different pictures. We are both right. I contend there is no objective reality. Reality depends on where we sit.

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    • Thanks, Katherine. It’s an interesting concept about objective reality. I was going to suggest that in science lies our salvation for an agreed upon reality (likely more important than an objective one), but we don’t even have that in this country, exacerbated by conspiracy theories and a lack of education. Now you’ll have me thinking all day about this – might even have to pull out some philosophy books. Thanks!

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      • You’re most welcome. The blog I posted last night addresses science, too, and will probably offend many people. The biggest limitation of “science,” from my subjective perspective, is that tries to separate itself from life to be “objective,” at least Western science does. The concept of “qi,” or “life force,” at least acknowledges life, and meshes well with quantum physics. A good read is “The Tao of Physics,” by an astro-physicist, Fritzjof Capra. I hope with all this reading and writing to help make philosophy practical.

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  10. Reblogged this on Healing Through Connection and commented:
    Lately others write my ideas more eloquently than I can.
    Here is another winner from Michelle at The Green Study.
    Mindfulness of our words, even in the smallest degree, can only help our relationships and national state of mind now.
    Thanks for the reminder, Michelle!

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      • My pleasure, Michelle!
        Yes, totally exhausting.
        And I think the mindfulness teachers would remind us simply to ‘be with’ the exhaustion. Kinda makes me wanna throttle somebody sometimes. And so I march on, one step, one breath at a time. 😉😜😌🖖🏼

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        • Ha! I just keep reminding myself that mindfulness is like any other muscle – keep using it and eventually it will be second nature – which I think will happen about two minutes before I shuffle off the mortal coil. But we always have our sense of humor…

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Amen, amen, I say to you. I must constantly remind myself that, while I think my beliefs are right, or I wouldn’t have them, that’s what they are – MY BELIEFS. They aren’t chiselled in stone. Thank you for presenting this thoughtful, calm reminder to all of us. We can do so much better at dialoguing than we are doing in the public square.

    Liked by 1 person

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