A constant theme in mental health that I have written about is that what happens to you is less important than how you make sense of what happens to you. This is a very important concept. So important, I want to write it again.
What happens to you is not as important as how you make sense of what happens to you.
This is true about our entire life. One way to understand this is through the idea of narrative. Think about a movie or a favorite book. It has a plot. Most of the times, we want the plot to make sense to us. The same is true of our lives. We want the narrative to make sense to us. We use our narratives to make sense of things that do happen to us.
We need life to make sense. That is why we will always have labels, no matter how often people want to push back against them. We need them. We need the plot of life to make sense to us.
Many times the people that we help in the mental health field have lost the plot of the narrative. They have lost the pieces that help it make sense.
It’s not just true of our life, but also the things that happen in the world around us. We need to be able to understand the motives of that athlete, or this movie star. We need bad guys and good guys. The idea that most of the people we see as bad guys or good guys are probably more like us is disturbingly uncomfortable. It brings fear into our mind.
And fear brings anger. Almost every time.
When we feel that our narrative is being questioned, we will become angry and defensive. What makes this interesting to me is that we often don’t realize this is what is happening. Sometimes, people argue and disagree over known and incontrovertible facts but that is rare. Most of the time, our arguments are at a plot line level.
I had two separate conversations this past weekend where this was true. One was with a bunch of people where I felt the plot that made the most sense was one of an organization over-reaching for control. Most of the others thought it was an organization operating as it was designed. As I realized that our disagreement stemmed from that, I began to change the way I approached the conversation. We didn’t come to much common ground but we did figure out where we disagreed and by and large we agreed to disagree. It was a fun conversation that involved passion, and high emotions. It also involved laughter because very few people were threatened by their narrative being questioned.
I had another conversation that didn’t go so well. Isn’t that the way it almost always is, we have one good conversation followed by one bad one? He thought the plot was a bad guy getting what he deserved. A guy who was arrogant, and conniving and...just a bad guy. The man was assigning motives and understanding that he couldn’t have known for certain, because he doesn’t know that person he was talking about. But for his narrative to make sense, these things have to be true. My narrative of the same situation is something different. It is one of a hero being attacked by people with less than pure motives. But still I’m assigning motives to people I don’t know as well. Not surprisingly, we didn’t find much common ground. In fact, it is safe to say that the man is angry with me.
Our plot lines simply did not match up. We could have as many conversations about whatever, but until we could figure out where our plot lines diverged, we simply were not going to agree. We couldn't find common ground because we believed we were both living different stories.
In the same way, you will find this principle to be true when you find people who you would not normally be friends with or be involved with much at all but you find a common goal to work toward. This creates a plot that supersedes the disagreeing plots. Maybe a democrat works alongside a republican to help feed a family that was burnt out of their house last week. The plot line of their political parties is overrode by the plotline of helping someone in a bad situation out. They have found common ground.
Of course, this brings up a host of serious questions. For everyone all of us.
- What happens when we lose the plot to our own life?
- What happens when the plot we are operating out of is wrong?
- What happens when the plot we claim to believe is not the plot that we are living out of? (this is called not living an integrated life)
- What happens when the plot we are forced to live in seems hopeless?
- What happens when the plot we believe is questioned?
- What does it mean for our plot when we get angry? What does it mean for us?
- What happens when the plot seems upside down (good is losing and evil is winning?)
- What happens when someone we love is living in a bad plot? (Someone we love making bad choices, destroying their life, etc.
- What happens when our spouse (of children) wish to live a plot that is different than ours?
These types of questions do not have quick or easy answers. I believe that they do have answers though. I believe that those answers can be found. The problem is that these questions are not exhaustive. I imagine someone out there is already thinking about a question that I don't have up there. I'm going to take the time over the next few days to answer most of the above questions and then I want to change the perspective a little to look at the broader issues that may give us a tool to answer future questions.