We are our stories. Some of us scour ancestral records looking for the ‘truth’. Some of us pick and choose what elements best tell our story. Some of us (a la Holly Golightly) create our own stories. But in the end we are our stories.
Whether we cling to family names and lore or change our names and run from the past, we are saying the same thing to the world; we are who we say we are. It often helps us to find our footing in the world, these narratives. Perhaps Mr. Romanoff never would have opened a successful restaurant if he didn’t claim a royal title. Perhaps Dale wouldn’t have won friends and influenced people had he not changed the spelling of his last name; giving the impression he came from a more distinguished family. People have been changing their names for as long as they’ve been changing their stories. Often for reason of life and death, but also for the pursuit of happiness.
We could argue the definition of happiness but we agree on what happiness isn’t; misery. There is much research on the resilience of human beings. There are people who have withstood the most horrific and miserable of circumstances and not just survived but thrived. There are other people who shatter like antique glass under much less harrowing ordeals. Why? If we are all made from (very) similar biological stuff, why is there such a discrepancy in our resilience? It would seem there is little correlation between optimism and resilience. Someone in the throes of anguish doesn’t bounce back because they believe the sun will come out tomorrow. It must be more about self-definition. A person having a strong sense of themselves can separate (not disassociate) from their circumstances. They can walk through hell and keep walking. A person who defines themselves by external stimuli (including the manner in which they’re treated) believes that hell is their new mailing address.
If this is true how do we help ourselves (and others) create a strong sense of self. The very first way is the stories we are told or tell to to the small. Children with a sense of ‘where they come from’ have a better sense of where they’re going. If their creation was mainstream/traditional the storytelling is pretty straightforward. If there is anything that veers slightly from “when a mommy and daddy love each other very much they want to be close as possible…” children must be told in an age-appropriate manner. The way we tell these stories is as important as the stories themselves. No parties should ever be demonized as children can do simple math (if my biological father was an evil son of a bitch what does that make me?) Having a sense of one’s ancestry creates solid roots on which to grow.
Beyond our narrative of origin what can help make us strong? External rewards are often kryptonite to a strong sense of self. Awards, honors and trophies are based as much on others’ performance as they are our own. You can’t win any kind of accolade unless others lost. The only way to feel accomplished is to accomplish something; at any age (ex. riding a 2-wheeler, taking the bus unescorted, learning to drive.) Finding things that we’re good at is one of the more rewarding ways of bolstering a sense of self. When we know we’re good at something (ex. raising ferrets, making goulash, painting murals, investing money, etc.) it matters little what others think and thereby diminishes any inclinations we might have towards external definition.
In the end we are exactly who we say we are. We decide how to pitch our own story. If we cull our life stories, most of us could create a compelling Lifetime move script. But to what end? (Have you ever watched one of those films?!) What do we gain from being the lead in a bad made-for-tv-movie? Why not go back and look at what happened in between the hardships and tell that story? Whatever happened, either despite it or because of it made you who you are today. More importantly you are still here. It’s never too late to reframe or update your story. No one is keeping track of how many versions there are.