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  • Writer's pictureBeth Pandolpho

Rewriting the Stories We Tell Ourselves

“Creativity has the power to look pain in the eye, and to decide to turn it into something better.” - Susan Cain, Bittersweet

In the young adult anthology, The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth, Christopher Myers' short story, "Mazes" is an allegory for the stories we tell about each other and ourselves.

Myers reveals through a counter-narrative of the Minotaur, that the main problem with the stories we tell is that we often get them wrong. And telling stories that are not true can cause harm to both the storyteller and the characters in the story.

Myers' story made me think about the other kinds of stories we tell. . . the ones in which we blame ourselves for that for which we are blameless, or use our narrative prowess to make our story seem happier than it really is.

I am someone who knows a lot about this.

The most fantastical story I ever told myself and my children was that their dad was irritable and volatile because his mom died when he was 8, and his dad died when he was 20. I justified his behavior by explaining, “Daddy grew up without a mother, and he didn’t have an easy childhood. That’s why he often doesn’t say or do the right thing.”

In the aftermath of the outbursts and verbal attacks, I created tall tales for our children to justify his behavior. I cast myself as the hero . . . rallying in their defense to protect, soothe and restore order . . . until the next time. I spun this story for years until it formed an intricate web in which I nearly tangled myself forever.

Brene Brown writes, “Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we're in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it.”

The truth underlying the story I told, a truth that has taken me years to understand, was not only that my heroics didn’t save anybody, but that his rage, condescension, and insults resulted in wounds that may never heal.

This devastating reality continues to reverberate through our lives in a way that makes the story I used to tell impossible to believe anymore. Perhaps the scars that remain will fortify us in the face of future challenges, and protect us from ever again believing stories that are not true.

And yet, I am not the only teller of this story.

In his version of the story, he is an unwilling victim trapped in his ex-wife’s maniacal plot to alienate him from his children. It is a very sad story, if you believe it. And you might, because he can be very convincing.

I believed him for a very long time.

I used to struggle just even knowing that this counter-narrative exists, and that there are likely people who believe him. I've become able to console myself with the understanding that the truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the middle; instead, it is revealed by the facts. An ex-wife who divorced him. Two of his three children who don’t talk to him. In-laws who welcomed him as a son for over 20 years, yet have retreated in the aftermath as the layers of damage continue to reveal themselves.

I’ve learned that it both matters what the listeners believe, and yet it also doesn’t matter.

The only path to freedom is in the truth, regardless of what everyone else believes. Author Elizabeth Gilbert recently said, “Every truth you tell is a kindness even if it makes people uncomfortable and every truth you don’t tell is an unkindness, even if it makes people comfortable.”

Yet, this truth is not always so easy to tell. There is much shame for being foolish enough to become ensnared in a story that enabled someone to continually harm you and your children, particularly when you were complicit in the telling.

I’m holding tightly to Myers’ words that “we can write and rewrite these stories. . . ,” and I believe we must. Because within the truth, I can breathe, And in the truth, there are possibilities for a different life, and even healing,

“Mazes” ends like this:

There is a story. It is one of the oldest stories.

It is a maze. . . waiting for someone to rewrite the borders, the walls, the edges.

To make the story a home for us all.

There is a story.

It is waiting for you.

I am still only beginning to write my way out of the story I told for far too long. . .one word at a time.


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