A few days ago I wrote about how amazing it is that fictional stories can seem so real. In that post I was speaking about stories told to us by others in the form of movies, TV shows, novels, and the like.
But we humans also tell stories to ourselves. Not just a little, but a lot.
After all, much, if not most, of our inner dialogue, that voice speaking inside the head of the vast majority of people (I've read that some individuals don't experience that inner speech) has to do with explaining to ourselves what did happen, is happening, or will happen.
For example, at the moment I'm sipping a cup of coffee before I take our dog for our usual late afternoon two-mile walk. I've envisioned how that plot line will play out.
Begin writing this blog post. Finish the coffee. Put the cup in the dishwasher. Call "Mooka!" Put Mooka's harness on. Change my shoes. Fill the dog-friendly water bottle I take along, since it is pretty hot and both dog and I like to drink along the way. Head off up our driveway.
Likely this is what will actually happen. But there's no guarantee of this. Something pressing could come up. I could have a sudden heart attack. The "Big One" earthquake could hit the Pacific Northwest. Lots of possibilities, albeit of low probability.
Thus most of the stories we tell ourselves are grounded in reality. They are based on observations of how the world works, which includes how our own mind and body work. We make plans for how our day will go accordingly. I'd planned to mow the grass today since it will be getting considerably hotter later in the week.
I did just that. The story I told myself turned out to be accurate, basically non-fiction. However, while using my Toro battery-powered trimmer to edge the grass after mowing it, the blue trimmer line ran out.
I'd been thinking that it had been quite a while since I changed the trimmer cartridge, so that wasn't a complete surprise. However, I had no idea when exactly that would occur, so my grass-cutting story didn't include the part where I had to walk back to our garage, get a new cartridge, and replace the old one.
This is a mild example of a story we tell ourselves going awry, of not reflecting reality. Often our stories are like this. We set off to meet a friend, expecting that we have plenty of time to get there, then find that traffic is really heavy and we're going to be late.
We had one idea of what is going to happen. Reality had another idea. Reality being way more powerful than we are, it won.
I just got back from a walk by myself. Mooka, our dog, just wasn't into walking. We started off, but she stopped and didn't want to keep going. That's unusual. So I took her home, then went for a walk on my own. Reality had a different idea than the story I'd told myself.
Maybe Mooka didn't like the 88 degree temperature. Maybe she isn't feeling well. Regardless, I had to change my story in accord with what was actually happening -- a dog who didn't want to go for a walk.
I'm trying to be more aware of the sorts of stories I tell myself. Most are just fine. They involve realistic thoughts about what I need to do right now, have done in the past, and will do in the future. But there's another category of stories that I'm working on tamping down, because those stories aren't productive or helpful.
In general, the stories I tell myself that could go in my brain's trash bin involve me getting ahead of what reality is telling me.
That's the core of needless anxiety and worry, anticipating that something bad is going to happen when there is minimal or no actual evidence of this eventuality. It's just in our mind. And since, as I said in my previous post, fictional stories can seem real, I can get worked up about something that I have no way of knowing will actually occur.
Like, Donald Trump being re-elected.
There's a decent chance this will happen. But there's a greater chance Joe Biden will be our next president. So the wisest thing for me to do is wait and see what the outcome is of the November election, paying attention to what the polls show between now and then, so I'm keeping in touch with what reality is saying, as contrasted with what my anxious mind is saying.
Along this line, there's an interesting discussion of goals in a book I wrote about recently, Oliver Burkeman's "The Antidote." A goal is akin to a positive story we tell ourself. It is what we want to have happen, after which we believe we'll be better off.
Religions are big on goals.
For example, loving Jesus with all our heart. Or surrendering unconditionally to what a guru asks us to do. But it's important to keep in mind that goals need to be continually reassessed so they match up with reality. If I'm a 71 year old guy who can't jump very high, an accurate description of myself, I'd better give up on the goal of being an NBA star.
Burkeman relates how an excessive attachment to the goal of reaching the top of Mt. Everest led to the tragic deaths of eight climbers in 1996. Chris Kayes tried to understand how this happened.
But the more Kayes learned of what had happened, and as he continued to follow the case after returning home, the more it reminded him of a phenomenon he had witnessed all too frequently among businesspeople.
The Everest climbers, Kayes suspected, had been 'lured into destruction by their passion for goals'. His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint -- a successful summiting of the mountain -- the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs.
If his hunch about the climbers was right, it would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. The climb would have become a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.
In theology, the term 'theodicy' refers to the effort to maintain belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Borrowing that language, Chris Kayes termed the syndrome he had identified 'goalodicy'.
...[Regarding a separate 1963 expedition] A bizarre and self-reinforcing loop took hold: team members would actively seek out negative information about their goal -- looking for evidence of weather patterns, for example, that might render the West Ridge approach even more risky than usual -- which would increase their feelings of uncertainty.
But then, in an effort to extinguish that uncertainty, the climbers would increase their emotional investment in their decision. The goal, it seemed, had become a part of their identity, and so their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the pain; it threatened them as individuals.
...Ed Viesturs, who watched the 1996 tragedy through his telescope, spoke of this lure in vivid terms. 'When you're up there, you've spent years of training, months of preparation, and weeks of climbing, and you're within view of the summit, and you know, you have -- in the back of your mind, you're telling yourself, "We should turn around, 'cause we're late, we're gonna run out of oxygen..."
But you see the summit, and it draws you there. And a lot of people -- it's so magnetic that they tend to break their rules, and they go to the summit. And on a good day you can get away with it. And on a bad day, you'll die."