Knowing the story, not knowing the story

I’ve been noticing this week how much I want to believe that I know someone’s story.

I guess I’m a storyteller. It comes naturally to me — maybe too naturally. My brain fills in the blanks, the unknowns, sometimes because imagination is fun and it helps with sense-making but sometimes it’s about anxiety.

The blanks can be scary. Why did that person act like that? Or here’s a more relevant example from my workplace: Why did that person leave for no apparent reason?

This has been occurring a lot lately. Little things that set off large tremors. Introduce a tiny amount of change to an organization and watch how it reacts: it can tell you a lot about where the instabilities lie. I read one person’s disappearance as evidence of failure; evidence of hidden secrets that surely must be malevolent or they wouldn’t be hidden; evidence that surely the organization as a whole was about to crash down around our ears.

But of course, I don’t know everyone’s story. And I don’t know what that person’s departure meant. Maybe it means nothing, after all. The story I told myself about it fit into other stories that I’ve told myself about How We Work Here or what our Big Issue is that needs solving. Even though in reality I wouldn’t claim to truly understand either of those things; I just know what I see, and what story I tell myself about it.

I’m thinking this is something like when someone throws a shoe at you. Except there is no shoe here.

It’s a phantom shoe: my own imagination getting worked up and inventing bogeymen where there may be none.

That’s the whole point of why I make these stories up in my head: it’s hard not knowing if something is a clue, or just one of those things that doesn’t mean much. Most importantly, it’s my sense-making that is the more important clue to follow.

The story-telling can be helpful to soothe my worries, if I let it be playful: maybe someone left because they had a fantastic spiritual awakening and decided to go sailing around the globe for a year learning how to juggle?

I can’t know for sure that someone’s departure indicates that the entire organization is doomed! That’s just one story that I told.

What I can do is thank my brain for coming up with that particular catastrophic story, and gently wonder what this tells me about my own feelings. This particular phantom shoe is all about my feelings towards my organization and how I’ve made sense out of it.

(Oh, phantom shoes. You are so useful, when I’m not ducking into my imaginary hidey hole thinking you are real.)

It’s helpful to re-tell the story, once I’ve become aware of it. Look what happens when the opposite story might be true: what if someone’s departure was an indication that everything is just as it should be? (Leaving aside for the moment the Monster of Gloom who insists that just cannot be true!)

More importantly, how would I act if the opposite story is true?

I might be happier, or believe in my work just that much more. The only thing that’s changed is my own willingness to believe that the story might as easily have a good ending as a catastrophic one.

This isn’t about being optimistic. No thank you! Blech. It is about getting comfortable no longer being the narrator.

It might seem like control, to be the narrator. Though really — what kind of narrator would I be if all my stories turned into terrible, disastrous tragedies at the end? That’s no fun. No one would come to my Story Hour (except perhaps the Gloom Monster).

I think my sovreignty is far better served by being willing to step aside and let the story tell itself, and not believe that I am the only one who can understand it.

Especially not if a given story starts tossing phantom shoes in my direction. Then I know the narrator has really lost it, and it’s time to step aside. Phantom shoes, that’s just silly.*

* Though wouldn’t it make the best band name? Persnicket and the Phantom Shoes, come see us live tonight!

About jesse k.

Writer. Mama. Spy in the house of self-awareness. Occasional crafter, letterpress geek, and academic snob.
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