Somewhere in deepest rural America, a man driving along a dark, lonely stretch of country road blew his right front tire. After pulling over and scrambling out of his BMW, he walked to the trunk, opened it, and noted with disgust that his jack was missing.
After ten minutes of nothing but frog and cricket noises, our traveler concluded that he was on his own. It was then that he noticed that off to the west, across a long stretch of open ground, was a lone farmhouse. It was late, but there was a light on in the front window and surely the farmer had a jack.
After squeezing through a break in a barbed-wire fence and nearly tearing his silk suit coat, the fellow started his trek across the field. “People in this part of the country need to pull together just to survive the elements,” he imagined. “The farmer will be glad to lend me a hand.”
Five minutes of tripping, trudging, and twitching later, our stranded driver caught a moonlit reflection of himself in a muddy puddle. “Dang, I look like a city slicker. That’s not good. Farmers don’t take much of a shine to ‘city folk.’”
As our traveler continued his quest for a jack he thought to himself, “There’s a chance the farmer won’t even answer the door. With all the murders they show on TV nowadays, who could blame him? Besides, in every slasher movie it’s always guys like me in fancy cars and expensive suits who the audience is made to hate.”
As the traveler drew closer to the farmer’s door his concerns escalated. “I’ve walked all the way across this huge field and the farmer will probably open up the door a few inches, listen to my request, and then tell me that he ain’t got no stinkin’ jack. And then he’ll slam the door in my face! What’s wrong with these people anyway?”
At last our desperate traveler stood at the door. He figured that he might as well knock since he’d come all that way—so he did. The door opened and the farmer asked:
“May I help you?”
“You can keep your stupid jack!” the traveler shouted, and then spun on his heel and trudged back to his car.
I tell this anecdote because it demonstrates the problem we often create when we invent stories to help us first understand and then prepare for the world. Sometimes the stories we tell are accurate and sometimes they aren’t. The problem, unfortunately, doesn’t lie completely in the accuracy of the story; it often lies in the act of storytelling itself. As handy a tool as storytelling is for making sense of the world, conjuring up tales can cause a great deal of harm. Telling ourselves stories often keeps us from seeking the truth. It can damage relationships. And if done with enough frequency and bile, it can kill us.
In case you think I’m overreacting to the possible dangers of telling ourselves stories, allow me to point out that the phenomenon that has taken center stage of the law and drug enforcement arenas. We learned this in an interview with the head of a very successful rehab program in San Francisco. She told us the following.
When candidates are screened to see if they’ll be admitted to the program, she asks them to share how they got to where they are. If a candidate explains that his mother was a crack addict, the director remarks that perhaps his mother should be entering the program. If the candidate counters with the fact that his dad beat him almost daily, she explains that surely his dad should be the one being interviewed.
The leader of this successful program isn’t trying to be glib or clever as she continues to nudge the candidate every time he blames someone else for his horrible life. She’s merely trying to learn how willingly the person will tell a new story—one where the person takes most of the responsibility.
“As long as people going through rehab are able to blame others for their problems,” she explains, “they have no need to change. Their stories keep them trapped in the current circumstances. You can’t change people until they change their story.”
Given the power that stories have over our lives, it can be helpful to know how we create them. Our friend in search of a jack serves as a perfect example. As he prepared for an encounter with a stranger, he steeled himself against the worst possible case. You can take the edge off disappointment if you anticipate it.
I learned this lesson at a young age. My brother would tell me that we would be going to the drive-in movie that evening, and I’d go crazy with excitement. When I brought it up with my mom later, she would tell me that we weren’t going to the movie—and where did I come up with such a crazy notion anyway? Disappointment would penetrate my entire being. My brother, on the other hand, would laugh and laugh. He pulled this trick about a dozen times until I learned: Don’t accept good news on its face. Be skeptical. Anticipate bad news. When I went to work I learned the corporate parallel. When others do something ambiguous, suspect the worst motive. And later when it came to relationships, I learned: Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.
To avoid damage to our psyches we become good at telling a whole host of stories. Some are aimed at preventing disappointment while others are aimed at keeping our image intact. For example, if we get into a heated argument and spin out of control, we let ourselves off the hook by explaining that we were innocent victims. We didn’t do anything wrong—oh no, we were on our best behavior when the other person lashed out at us.
When we are caught behaving in rude, insulting ways, we tell a different story. We take the heat off ourselves by vilifying others. Consider the limit case. Career criminals often justify their actions by suggesting that the people they steal from don’t deserve the money. They’re selfish tax-evaders who probably stole the money in the first place. We create villainous stories so we can treat others poorly without feeling guilty about our own actions. To quote a supervisor I once interviewed, “Of course I shout threats at my employees. They’re animals. They only listen to threats.”
Finally, when we’ve stood by and done nothing to rectify a wrong, when our inaction puts our integrity into question, we tell helpless stories. “What? You want me to disagree with the boss in the meeting—and get fired? Not me. Nobody can disagree and live to tell about it.” Stories that suggest that no effort will be enough help us transform gutless inaction into political savvy. We tell ourselves, “I wasn’t afraid, I just wasn’t naïve.”
And now for an interesting twist. If we tell the stories with enough creativity and conviction, the part of our brain that prepares for blunt trauma actually believes our story. Even though we’ve only imagined that something bad is about to happen, or that the other person is a villain and deserves whatever we give them, we actually pump adrenaline into our blood stream and prepare for the threat as if it were real.
Under the influence of adrenaline, good things happen if we run into, say, a saber-toothed tiger. Blood is diverted from our less-important organs such as the brain to the muscles that will help us run and jump and hit and otherwise engage in fight or flight activities—against the tiger. Bad things happen to us if we run into, say, our spouse or coworker where neither fight nor flight is required. Our brain, running low on fuel, goes into backup mode and mostly shuts down the cerebral cortex—or the part we use for higher-level thinking. Now our brain draws more heavily from the lower half—also known as the “reptilian brain.” So when it matters the most, we come up with stupid ideas. “He’s resisting my recommendation. Maybe if I raise my voice, become belligerent, and overstate my point he’ll come around to my way of thinking.”
It gets worse. Other bad things happen to us when we tell stories, believe them, and then prepare for blunt trauma. Not only do we say stupid things, but our body also produces cholesterol to thicken our blood in case we start to bleed. I learned this while listening to a medical radio show, driving to work, and drinking—and I’m not making this up—I was actually consuming a disgusting tofu-based breakfast beverage in an effort to lower my cholesterol. The very news that my body can produce its own cholesterol—despite the fact that I was eating tofu and soy supplements—ticked me off, started my adrenaline flowing and, I’m pretty sure, kick-started my own cholesterol production on the spot.
So what’s a person to do? Rather than always preparing for the worst or imagining the worst of others—maybe we should keep an open mind. Instead of vilifying others, we simply wonder what’s going on. We’re not sure what’s going to happen, so let’s find out. This does two things: It propels us to discover the truth, and it keeps us from angrily charging in with an accusation.
So, replace your ability to conjure up stories with a genuine desire to learn the truth. If you do so, you’ll take charge of your emotions, improve your health, and bolster your relationships. It may not be as fun as thinking horrible thoughts, but it’s a lot more effective. And who knows—as you open yourself up to the truth, you might just be able to find a jack, change your tire, and get back on the road.