I was at the NZ Association of Professional Hypnotherapists’ joint conference with the NZ Association of Neuro-Linguistic Programming on the weekend. The keynote speaker, Merv Edmunds, talked on Sunday morning about stories, and how we can take on a story in childhood and live it out in our lives.
One of the therapists in the audience responded by mentioning a story she’d often listened to as a child on New Zealand’s National Radio program on a Sunday morning. It was called “Diana and the Golden Apples”, and was a version of the Atalanta story in which Atalanta is called Diana.
In the original story, Atalanta doesn’t want to marry at all and sets a condition that only a man who can beat her in a footrace may marry her, with the unsuccessful suitors being killed.
In the Diana version, Diana only wants to marry her childhood friend Melanion, the only man who could ever beat her in a race, and uses racing as an excuse not to marry anyone else (while hoping Melanion will turn up from wherever he’s got to). However, when he does arrive, he’s sustained a wound to his leg.
Diana’s father gives Melanion three golden apples, and he distracts and slows Diana by tossing them down at intervals for her to pick up (presumably she had ruled out just throwing the race in his favour).
Now, the insight this particular woman had was that she’d been living out the story of Diana. She was currently on her third marriage, and had a habit of testing the men she was married to on a three-strikes-and-you’re-out basis. She didn’t want to repeat it for a third time while “waiting for Melanion”.
Interestingly to me, I think she’d actually remembered the story wrong. Her memory seemed to be that Diana was the one dropping the golden apples as a test for the suitors.
Living the wrong story
Anyway, it got me thinking about stories and how we live them out. A lot of the classic stories don’t have happy endings, including some of the ones we get as children.
Even if they do, attempting to live them out can give us issues. (I know when I tried to live out a conventional romantic story and discovered that sometimes unrequited love stays that way, it messed me up like a drunken biker.)
Nobody has shown this better than Terry Pratchett in his story (yes, I know), Witches Abroad. He makes it very clear why sometimes it’s better that the servant girl doesn’t marry the Prince….
There are whole therapeutic approaches built around stories. Transactional analysis talks about “scripts” and “games”, conventional roles and interactions that we attempt to play out in our lives. Narrative therapy is all about the stories and finding ways to live a different story. But I’m going to take a lightweight approach here and just give you some questions for reflection.
- What was your favourite childhood story? Retell it briefly, in writing, emphasising what the central character does and what happens to him or her.
- Do you think you identified with that character? Are there ways in which you’ve been trying to live out that story?
- How’s that been working for you?
- If it wasn’t that character’s story – if it was your story – what might you do differently that could work better?
- Write down your story as you want it to go. Emphasise the decisions the hero makes which influence the outcome.
- Now that you know that, how will you stay aware and awake the next time a situation comes up where the story could potentially live itself out through you – or you could live your life instead?
- Spend some time imagining a future situation where you live your life according to your new story. Make it as vivid as possible, so that it becomes a stronger template for action than the old story. You might have to repeat that a few times.
Living good stories
Of course, not every story is a bad fit for us. Stories can be inspirational, lift us up and carry us forward when the going gets tough. Merv, the speaker at the conference, mentioned a woman who’d showed immense perseverance against all odds and become the first woman to command an Australian naval vessel.
She’d been inspired by two elderly women who she’d known as a child, who’d been part of the Resistance in Belgium during World War II. Their stories had given her great strength to draw on when things got tough.
The fantasy writer Orson Scott Card puts it brilliantly well in his collection Maps in a Mirror:
Because I remember standing at the Cracks of Doom, and because I remember experiencing it through Sam Gamgee’s eyes, I clearly remember seeing that those who reach for power are possessed by it, and if they are not utterly destroyed by it, they lose part of themselves in getting free… We act out the [stories] we believe in and care about most, the ones that have become part of us.
So, part 2: some questions about inspirational stories.
- What story can you think of where the hero is a true inspiration to you and you can see yourself modelling your life successfully on him or her? Tell the story, in writing.
- What is it that the hero is, has or does that makes them inspirational?
- Where are you now in relation to that heroic quality?
- What’s your next step toward gaining more of that quality for yourself?
- How will you stay awake and awarenext time a situation comes up that calls for that quality, so that you can live it more like your hero?
- Write down a story in which you, perhaps in a small way, act like your hero in a challenging situation.
- Imagine that situation as vividly as possible so that it becomes a powerful template for action, linking to the story you already have of your hero.
Now keep track. Notice when you live your new story. Notice if you’re starting to live your old story. Work the exercises over and over, as you choose which story is going to be yours.
Because part of being amazing, part of becoming a hero in your own life, is being awake and aware and living out your own story, not someone else’s. Being inspired by someone else is great, but you still need to be yourself – not them.
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