As we learn to sustain our poise, our life story shrinks and then disappears.
It’s a good thing.
It’s always a falsehood. Here are some examples from the narrative I used to keep alive in my internal dialogue and in my conversations with other people. Each one is a theme in my former life story
v My success theme: I was the first member of my family to get a college degree and later to get a Master’s Degree. I went on to be a good teacher and then an innovative CEO of an organizational dynamo that trained thousands of line staff and leaders in all 50 states, produced distinctive new knowledge in our field, and enjoyed major investments from foundations and government.
v My marriage theme: I’ve been married 50 years. Well, to four different people. Think of me as a movie star (ha ha). I’m a slow learner, but now I’ve finally got it right, married happily for 20 years.
v My family theme: My three children and I pursued very different trajectories after my divorce from their mother when they were teens. They went religious and conservative with their mother, and I went the other way. As parents later, my children took my 10 grandchildren into religious and political conservatism. I was close to my grandchildren as they grew up, nevertheless, and remain close to some of them today. My dream of a Father Knows Best family has yet to come into full bloom.
I have many more themes in my story, but I’m bored and chagrined repeating these three, so I’ll stop.
Life Stories Fail to Tell the Truth
My life story is distorted in several ways. Even though I have probably repeated it hundreds of times, in various versions and with various levels of detachment and self-awareness.
Here’s why I have dropped my life story:
1. My life stories, as I used to present them, are not true. Or they are only minimally true. My ego, always wanting to put a self-serving spin on everything I do, wants to embellish, wants to look good.
Fritz Perls, the gestalt therapist, said that almost all of our talk is either chickenshit, bullshit, or elephant shit.
Bullshit, he said, is telling an exaggerated life story to make ourselves look smarter than others, more successful than others, or nicer—more moral—more sensitive—stronger—braver than other people.
My life stories were bullshit: Did I tell you about how neurotic our innovative staff remained, even as we told our national training audiences how enlightened we were? Did I tell you about my marital infidelities? Oh, I forgot to mention those painful realities? Did I tell you about the aspects of my personality and lifestyle that my family did not want to emulate or did not enjoy being around?
Oh, yes, those parts of the story that I left out.
2. Telling my life story over and over kept me stuck. My story, as I used to tell it in its many iterations, kept me circling in an eddy, with the illusion of going somewhere, but actually going nowhere.
Repeating my stale stories over and over, I created the ordinary man of my time, a boring egomaniac who never seemed to change much.
Emily Dickinson, in her famous poem, said
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
My story made me predictable, even to myself. What is the future of a man who is stuck in his own story? It’s hard to imagine a glorious time ahead for a bullshitter.
3. It’s not possible to tell this life story and sustain my poise at the same time. Telling my story, I’m rarely in the present. If I’m rehashing parts of my life story in my internal dialogue, I may be doing some necessary reflection. In other words, it is useful to bring up an old story if I have some unresolved issue to work through. But most of the time it’s just mental masturbation.
Or if I’m telling part of my life story to someone else, I am not only not in the present, but I’m not connecting well to the person I’m talking to. Why am I telling this person this story? To impress. That means I’m not being authentic.
And, I hate to remember, when I used to tell my story to others, I was usually earnest. Earnest, boring, humorless! Here’s life to live right now in this precious moment alone or with others, and I’m dredging up these phony old stories.
Who am I if I don’t have a story? Well, you are a poised warrior, living a vibrant life of joy and practical advantage.
v Poised, you’re present in the unpredictable, pulsating now, a now that has no story starring your ego, a now pregnant with possibility.
Fully present, the now will guide you. Acquiescing to what is happening now, we won’t be obsessing about a failed past—or even a successful past.
Fully present, your consciousness is all you need.
v Poised, you’re connected to everything and everybody around you. Life is there in all its abundance and variety, and you’re part of it.
Poised, you create new, vibrant connections with people around you. Connected, your interactions are fresh, appropriate, in the flow.
v Poised, you’re grateful. There are no regrets to rehash. Your cup is filled to the brim and you don’t want to retract your gifts by telling yourself or others a tale of woe or even a tale of victory.
v Poised you’re creative. You’re aware that something new wants to emerge in you. You are a creative agent, ever resourceful and dynamic, acquiescing to what must be lived right now.
You have access to all of your powers and what you are creating has never existed before. You’re pioneering on the frontiers of human emergence.
v Poised, you’re lighthearted. You are not repeating the old, heavy, self-absorbed stories of your past. Death will come all too soon, and now is the time to laugh. Most of the time, you’re having fun, laughing at yourself and at the divine comedy of human life.
The next time a new person in your life asks, “Tell me about yourself,” well, you know what not to do.
Poised, you’ll be surprised at what you say.