One of my favorite talks that I listen to over and over again by Pema Chodron is her teaching about cultivating Bodichitta, which is another word for the ‘awakened heart.’ Her advice is that we have to start where we are, recognizing the love we have to give and, more importantly, the love we can receive in this present moment. In the talk, she empathizes about how many people share the common and painful experience of not being able to identify a single person that they felt loved them truly and unconditionally. This narrative of feeling unlovable is rampant in our time. Arguably, there are more people living lonely and disconnected lives than in any time in our history, which is ironic given the vast technological advances designed to connect us all.
Our sense of being lovable is a deep part of our personal narrative. It comes to us in bits and pieces over the course of many years growing up, but is more malleable than most people realize. We can teach ourselves and transform our storyline about our loveliness by engaging with the stories we tell. Our personal narrative is like a road map, and shifting its course internally is, as St Francis says, literally like changing worlds. The catch is that we need a witness. Breakthroughs in re-imagining our capacity and direction resonate when we share them around a dinner table or a fire ring. They take on a powerful truth as we are heard and witnessed in our storytelling. We experience a deeper sense of our own worth in the attentive listening of people who love us.
Resonant stories of personal discovery are qualitatively different from what we routinely post or tweet. And the confusion between these spaces of “sharing” is not a small part of the separation and despair that social media conjures for many of us. Online, we are consciously and often subconsciously, always scheming to look our best, which explains why the random resonant story of vulnerability gets so much attention. Sitting around a campfire or at a meal with someone listening to us, we lose our pretense. Real exchanges make us real.
The power of engaging with a story is visible in great literature as well. For all of the self-help books out there (and there are millions) I can’t say that I remember a single one- not even my own, teaching me any lasting truth the way that remarkable fiction does. My kids were all raised on the Harry Potter legacy and there is a sense of justice that permeated those books that still acts as a point of reference around the dinner table sometimes. Through a well-told story with a character that I came to care about, I have comprehended more about huge swaths of history, as well as the convoluted motivations and denial that entraps a life.
Yet, in weird and unsettling ways, we have replaced this practice of storytelling with the obsessive practice of sharing our stories in superficial ways to our Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter friends. We have lost the thread of our own stories, and with them, the deep ways in which we can evolve our sense of meaning and feelings of worthiness. And these huge social media giants have become wealthy as a container for our stories, that don’t really do justice to them or feed us the way they were intended. Taking the time to actively engage with and invent a story that grows your sense of worth and connection is the map to a changed world- yours.