By Heidi Marttila-Losure
What stories are we living here in the Dakotas?
I ask after listening to an intriguing report on National Public Radio on Jan. 1 about “story editing”: changing the stories we tell ourselves to lead to better outcomes.
Reporter Lulu Miller talked to psychologist Tim Wilson from the University of Virginia, who explained the power that our stories have over us:
The idea is that bad stories can actually bring you down. Stories like, “I’ll never succeed.” “Nobody likes me.” Or, “I’m a coward.”
Wilson: “That’s unfortunately self-reinforcing. Once you say that to yourself, it’s very hard to get out of it.”
But if you tweak a story like that just a little bit … it can help you get out of a place of fear or unhappiness or defeat.
Wilson: “A little tweak to a story can go a long way to changing what we do and how happy we are.” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/01/01/258674011/editing-your-lifes-stories-can-create-happier-endings)
Miller uses a fine example from her four-and-a-half-year-old nephew, named Lewis, who edited his own story about an encounter with a Frankenstein monster in a toy store to make himself braver than he was as the encounter happened. Lewis’ very imaginative strategy to change the outcome (you’ll have to listen to the story to hear his unique way of defeating his foe) might not work for those of us who have outgrown such free-range use of our imaginations, but the technique is the same. Change the story we tell ourselves, and we can change how we react to it and go forward.
The stories we tell ourselves are based in reality—but they are not reality. They are one interpretation of events, one way to look at what has happened to us and who we are. It’s not about “fact” versus “fiction”—facts themselves have little power over us. What shapes our lives are the stories we tell about those facts.
The stories they were talking about were individual stories. But we have collective stories that we tell ourselves also. Here are some that I’ve heard here in the Dakotas:
- “No one would ever want to move here because of our winters.” The winters in Minnesota are nearly as bad, yet no one seems to worry that winter is keeping the Twin Cities from growing. The winters in the Bakken are terrible, and yet people keep moving there. Blaming a lack of growth or prosperity on weather is an excuse that keeps us from making effective changes in areas that we can control.
- “There are no jobs here.” Recently, leaders in Webster, S.D., were considering putting up a billboard announcing how many jobs they had open—people had told themselves the no-jobs story so long that they couldn’t fathom that the reality had changed. A few jobs had enviable salaries, and many others had increased base rates to try to recruit workers. Other towns would have lots of business for electricians, plumbers or other tradespeople.
- “There are no opportunities here.” So make your own opportunity! This is perhaps the most frustrating story I encounter. Some people look at the job listings, don’t see a job that fits perfectly, and assume there’s no place for them here. The Dakotas still hold the promise that lured the pioneers to our region 125 and more years ago, but to realize it, we’re going to have to revive the pioneering spirit our ancestors had. If you don’t see the job you want in the community where you want to live, create it. Don’t say “there’s no market”—with the Internet and delivery services, the world is our market.
Editing those kinds of damaging storylines is a big part of what Dakotafire is all about. This story editing is not about ignoring facts, but shaping the story around those facts so that we are empowered.
Here’s a fact: It’s 21 degrees below zero as I write this.
Here’s one possible version of the story: Why do I live here again? Who in their right mind would choose to live here?
Here’s another: Crazy cold outside. But the sun is shining, and our big south-facing windows are doing a fine job of heating the house. And if it gets cloudy, I have wood harvested from our own land that I can add to the wood stove.
Both stories are based on the same fact: It’s still cold outside. But in the first I am trapped and helpless, and in the second I am self-reliant and satisfied. (Even if I am borrowing the “self”-reliance, since I didn’t gather the wood or build the passive solar house. The story is a good one, and the satisfaction remains.)
As we start a new year, it’s a good time to consider the stories that we are living, both individually and collectively. Edit as needed for happier, more meaningful outcomes.
What do you think? Comment below!