It’s hard to believe that October is finally here, and with any luck the Kansas weather will start to feel more and more like the season I love most…FALL! There is just something about the brisk autumn air, the faint scent of wood smoke, and the orange and gold leaves that feels special and mysterious to me — almost like anything is possible. If you didn’t already know this, possibilities can be both exciting and terrifying…and most of all…powerful.
This vision of fall is a story that I have created about what this season means to me, and so it is — special, mysterious, and rich in possibilities, year after year. For others that I know who tell a different story of fall, it is a season of endings as the leaves begin to die and summer comes to a close. That is the power of possibility. When we open ourselves up to a certain outlook, we begin to see its story told over and over and over again, confirming our perspective. Everyone and everything has stories which influence our experiences. Let’s take a look at how these stories might play out in our lives…
When I was a little girl, I loved scary stories. I enjoyed them all year round, but especially in the fall as Halloween got closer. I would buy books filled with scary ghost stories and read them under the covers with my little brother at night. Most of them were silly, building the reader up with suspense only to reveal a very humorous ending. The stories alone were not all that frightening, but once the lights went out in my room and the house got quiet for the night, I would lie there in bed thinking about the stories and all the possible ways for them to end. The more I thought about them, the scarier they became; the alternate endings that I dreamed up in my head were far more terrifying than the originals. Soon enough, I would be wide awake in my bed too scared to fall asleep and too embarrassed to tell anyone. After all, it wasn’t the silly ghost stories that I was afraid of…it was the stories that I had created in my mind.
The monster in my dreams was much taller than the one I read about in the book, and a lot smarter…hard to fool and outsmart the way the kids in the book were able to. I became smaller and smaller in comparison, weaker and weaker, and obviously no match for this terrifying creature. Pretty soon the shadows in my room started to take on different forms, my bed seemed smaller, the noises in the house unrecognizable, and the hallway to my mother’s room much much longer. To put it bluntly…I was freaking myself out!
Once sufficiently scared enough to do something about it, I would jump out of my bed, race down the hall to my mother’s room, and wake her up. Some nights my mom would be exasperated, sending me back to my room in a hurry. Some nights she would cave in and let me sleep with her. Other nights, my mom was creative and drew my attention to the possible stories that I was ignoring. What if I could have super powers taking the monster off guard? What if the monster was a vegetarian who was angry because he couldn’t find a tofu salad in our sleepy little town? What if he was my pet, his size both terrifying and amazing, but deep down a truly gentle and misunderstood creature? In a sense she was telling me to dream a different dream…write a different story. We would lie in bed thinking of all the fun possibilities, and pretty soon my monster didn’t seem so big.
Now, as an adult, I don’t lie awake in bed dreaming up scary ghost stories, but occasionally I do find it difficult to sleep while my mind races with other types of scary stories. Sometimes a little test or performance anxiety the night before a big exam, game, or date can quickly turn into a repetitive story of personal failure. When fear sets in, it seems the only possibilities we explore are the ones we most wish to avoid…powerful possibilities. We come down with a bad case of the What Ifs?! What if I forget everything I’ve learned? What if the game is tied and the winning point comes down to me and I disappoint my team? What if my date decides not to come and everyone in the restaurant knows that I was stood up? The more we sit and consider the negative outcomes, the more elaborate our stories can become and the more we fear their presence. If this happens…what does it say about me?
In a very innocent attempt to “know” ourselves and the people around us, we rely on the use of language to communicate our perceptions of each other. We can feel a sense of comfort in “knowing” ourselves and others, but we also can feel an uneasiness when the story we most often tell and hear limits us from fully expressing the many parts of who we are or from seeing our peers in all their potential. Narrative therapists call this the “dominant story.” A simple Google search of the word dominant immediately pulls up the definition: “most important, powerful, or influential. Synonyms include: presiding, ruling, governing, controlling, commanding, ascendant, supreme, and authoritative.” According to this description, a dominant story is not just something that we have heard about ourselves but a story that has deeply impacted us…something that holds power and authority in our lives. These are the stories that help us climb to the top of success because we “know” ourselves to be motivated, capable, intelligent, talented, determined, resourceful, supported, etc. These are also the stories that discourage us because we “know” ourselves to be lazy, worthless, dumb, irresponsible, unimportant, unreliable, etc. We begin to internalize these expectations, see evidence of their validity, and live accordingly. And yet, deep down, I think we all know that there is more to the story.
Just when we think that we really “know” ourselves, we might be surprised to discover that all we have done is narrow our window of opportunity, limiting our ability to just “be.” Am I suggesting that we should simply look on the sunny side of life, ignoring the parts of ourselves that we find unhelpful and focus solely on what makes us great? Not exactly; after all, that wouldn’t really honor the complexity of the human spirit with our many ways of being. What I am referring to is a life of “both/and” in comparison to “either/or.” Am I good or am I bad? I know that I have behaved well and badly and will continue to do so over the course of my life. Am I a success or a failure? I have succeeded and failed at many things. Am I weak or strong? There have been days where I have been amazed at my ability for both. If you read my first blog, “Are you looking for change?,” then you know that nothing stays the same and change is constantly occurring in our lives, rendering it impossible to be any one of these things exclusively at any given moment. What is the dominant story in your life? What stories have you been told about yourself? What stories are you telling about others…about life? Does it feel as if scary stories are ruling your life? The next time these stories are being shared, stop for a minute, rather than question, “What if?,” ask yourself, “What else? What else am I? What else is he/she/it?,” “How is this story helpful to me?,” “How does it serve me?,” “Is this the story that I want governing my life…my relationships?” Don’t let the story of your full potential be the story left untold.
To further capture the spirit of MY STORY of fall, I leave you with a fun little “scary story” that I have been telling to others around this time of year since I was a little girl. It brings back many memories for me!
My favorite story to tell my younger brother was a tale about a brother and sister (of course) who were stranded on an old dirt road. Thinking they might find someone to help, they took off on foot down the long dark path seeking a home nearby. After walking for what felt like hours, the siblings spotted an old farm house with a candle lit in an upstairs window. Knocking on the door, the pair wondered if this was not a good idea, yet they had come so far and knew of no other option. When no one came to the door, the older sister decided to open it and peek inside. It appeared as if nobody was home, but they spotted a telephone sitting conveniently next to the little rocking chair in the corner of the living room.
They decided it was best to use the phone and then head back to the car to wait for help to come. As his sister picked up the phone and began to dial, the young boy heard a strange voice coming from the second floor: “Guess what I can do with my long hairy fingers and my red ruby lips?”
Frightened, the boy pulled on his sister’s jacket to get her attention, but she ignored him, frustrated with the phone. Convinced that it was his imagination but determined to discover what the mysterious sound actually was, he inched closer to the staircase. And then he heard it again…a little louder this time: ”Guess what I can do with my long hairy fingers and my red ruby lips?” He lunged for his sister, certain of what he had just heard.
Having no luck with the phone, the sister decided to calm her brother’s fears and show him that there was nothing to be afraid of. Marching up the stairs with her brother trailing closely behind, she came to a bedroom door and saw the flicker of light under the door which must be coming from the candle she had seen burning in the window.
A little uncertain, she opened the door and found a big hairy monster standing in the corner breathing down at them: “Guess what I can do with my long hairy fingers and my red ruby lips?” She began to scream, terrified by what was standing before her eyes.
At this time, her little brother who was no longer interested in playing games shouted, “What?!?! What can you do with your long hairy fingers and your red ruby lips?!?!” Pleased, the monster smiled and said, “This!,” and then placed his fingers to his lips, moving them back and forth as he blew raspberries from his disgusting mouth: “thbphbbpphbbth.” My brother and I would laugh hysterically under the covers in relief and satisfaction with the story’s silly end.
Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoy this season, whatever story it holds for you!