Changing the Story

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about how our memories and stories about people and events stay locked in our minds and how we use them to justify current actions and to judge others. I recently read “The Sense of An Ending” by Julian Barnes. Briefly, it is a story about a man’s memories of a relationship he had with a woman early on in his life and how those memories become challenged when they are reintroduced many years later. The man realizes that the stories he’s told himself about her and the circle of friends and family they had around them at the time are grossly inaccurate.

The aspect of the book that stands out for me is how our memories of events stay locked away in our minds until we bring the stories back up to justify our current attitudes or actions ― and how difficult it is to change those stories, even when we realize they’re not true and that they do harm.

Here’s an example of how I’ve seen this play out in the work place:

Jim and Brian began working together on the same team three years ago. They both had strong and very different opinions about what direction the business should take over the next 12 months. They were passionate about their perspectives and tried influencing the rest of the management team to see their points of view. This pitted them against one another, and they both created strong negative attitudes toward each other.

This was difficult for the rest of the team. Most people could see pluses and minuses to each of their strategies for growing the business, but because Jim and Brian often fought against each other, team members tended to shy away from siding with one or the other. They became paralyzed whenever Jim and Brian were in the room. They just wanted them to stop fighting and to get along so the team could move forward.

Time went on, and it became apparent whose strategy was best for growing the business. But because Jim and Brian were caught in their memories of what happened three years prior when they were so opposed to each other, they had difficulty changing how they saw and felt about each other.

At some point, however, Jim and Brian began to see that the business was succeeding. This allowed them to change their relationship to one another. Jim’s strategy happened to be the better one, but he didn’t boast about it or say to Brian, “I told you so!” He just continued to try building the business. Brian, on the other hand, could have easily resented Jim as he saw Jim’s strategy succeeding, but he was smart enough to change his opinions and began supporting Jim, knowing they would all win in the end.

Overall, the biggest takeaway for me was seeing that both Jim and Brian had to change their views of each other. They had to stop telling themselves the same story they had created about the other. They had to forgive and forget and be pragmatic enough to know that, in the end, the business would succeed, and they would be liberated from their old stories. They could begin to accept each other in the present and appreciate what talents and strengths they both brought to the team.

In “The Sense of an Ending,” Barnes refers to this phenomenon this way:

“For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked [the persons name], the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions ― resentment, a sense of injustice, relief ― and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed ― which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?”

For me, the lesson here is about changing our relationship to things when our opinions or beliefs no longer serve us or anyone else. It’s easy for us to create an opinion or belief about someone and then lock it away in our minds and hearts. It’s much more challenging to question those beliefs by asking ourselves if they are still true. Has the other person changed? Does he or she always do this to me? Is he or she always like that? Have I changed since I created that initial opinion? Have circumstances changed since I initially created that story?

These are all important questions that we can continue to ask ourselves about our held-fast beliefs about others.

This week, try seeing people for who they have become. Question your opinions about them, and ask yourself if your negative emotions and thoughts about them are still justified. Try stopping the old story loop that replays itself in your head. Interrupt those thoughts by asking, “Is this still true? What purpose do my negative thoughts serve?” You can change the story by observing what is true now and being open-minded and open-hearted enough to accept what is now true about the other person.”

Reading about Nelson Mandelas death this week reminded me of what true liberation is all about. It’s about being free in our hearts and minds from the negativity and resentment that imprison us. After he was set free from prison, Mandela embraced his captors and in some cases even hired them to work in his newly formed government. While others were angered and confused by his magnanimous gestures toward his enemies, he prevailed in his attempts to forgive and forget. And by so doing, he became one of the greatest leaders and heroes of our time.

As he so eloquently said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Have a good week!


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