I once read that our earliest memories aren’t really our memories at all, but rather “tokens” given to us by others. These tokens come to us through the experiences of others who remember that which we cannot. These experiences are often represented by memory-infused material culture: photos, mementos, and souvenirs of our past. These images and objects hold the memories in tangible form, and they provide us with a framework for our earliest identity.
Due to our human need and propensity for story telling, these tokens are not merely a lists of facts and objective observations. Our human psyches are wired to find patterns and meaning, even where they do not objectively exist. Think of constellations in the night sky; people point to individual stars and present them to us in a certain way to create a picture. The stars themselves are observable objectively, but a subjective story is presented to make meaning of what we see. Is the Milky Way a river of snow, wheat, milk from goddesses, or coyote mischief? Well, that depends on who is telling the stories. These different explanations came from Inuit, Egyptian, Greek/Roman, and Navajo cultures; the context and subjective reality of the story teller shapes the story.
Our tokens are handed to us in the same way as these constellation stories; others’ memories are infused with their own explanations and meaning and linked to create a picture of who we are when we are yet too young to have any say in that matter. The individual memories (metaphorically, the stars) speak of our birth story, when we said our first words (and which words they were), when we took our first steps, and how often we cried. They also usually come with an assigned gender, a personality, and a set of expectations to play our part in a greater worldview-driven story created by others. By the time we are conscious enough to comprehend these origin stories, we have internalized them as our own.
But they are not entirely or exactly our own stories. They were given to us by others. Those who wrote our origin stories are typically older or more powerful than we are, and therefore they often hold the keys of power and control to the narrative. Think now of the word “authority” and look at what’s buried within it. The words “author” and “authority” have the same root and for good reasons. Those in power write the story.
These stories serve a purpose in the beginning of our lives; typically, the authors have good intentions, and these stories give us a sense of belonging and a frame of reference. Ideally, story-tellers hold these story-writing powers with openness and curiosity. They sense into how and when to pass the pen on to the protagonist. If we, as the initial authorities in a person’s life, remain curious about our own biases and feelings, we allow the protagonist to self express and become the author of their own story. If we remain curious about who others are, we can leave space and freedom for them to grow and evolve.
The story telling doesn’t begin and end in our homes, however.
As we enter society, we are given scripts for our part in broader social stories about what’s appropriate behavior or who it’s appropriate to be—usually these stories and scripts come to us with categories, often in binary forms. Sometimes it’s so embedded in the social norms that we don’t overtly notice it, and sometimes it’s pretty stark. Subliminally and sometimes overtly, we are handed a sociological story and given a script for how to play our part:
“You there, we’ll call you female role 3 billion and 1. You can be overly placating and ceaselessly apologetic for your feminine existence. You’ll see how that really jives with the story arc in act 3 where masculinity equals higher worth. Your character really peaks when she decides to be more masculine as a way to earn respect. Denying her empathic and intuitive tendencies to mask herself as cold and unfeeling—it’s great. Society will reinforce her belief that it’s progress, but really people are just becoming more masculine and thus still oppressing all that is feminine. They won’t figure this out until the planet is already on fire because they were overly aggressive and despised all that was nurturing and empathic. Similarly, male role 3 billion and 2, stop being such a sissy. You think the world cares about your feelings? Get back to being a machine. Subdue and conquer—yourself first and then everything else.”
We as a society have a lot of work to do in deconstructing our gender biases. Maybe someone wants to embrace their feminine nature, but they live in a context where that’s unacceptable. For example, maybe when they express sadness or empathy or sensitivity, they are mocked or told to toughen up. Perhaps they’re made to intellectualize away their feelings. Or perhaps the opposite is true; it could be that someone is made to diminish their strength and assertiveness and present as passive or overly agreeable. They are referred to as “mean” or “bossy” or “aloof” when they are confident, strong, and independent.
Gender identity is becoming more complex and it is a huge category of story telling that is challenging our binary thinking. Gender fluidity, gender expansiveness, gender nonconformity—these are words that are beginning to make their way into our language as a society because humans are complex and dynamic. Sexual orientation is another topic—we are beginning to realize that as we allow people to have rights and expression without fear, there is a whole range and spectrum to sexual orientation.
There is also the topic of worldview which has a huge bearing on one’s story. Someone may want to embrace a different worldview than they inherited, or they may want to try their hand at living apart from any particular faith or spiritual tradition.
All of these examples of topics and issues and categories have to do with the stories that people are given versus the private stories that are innate. It is not easy to deviate from the stories we’ve been given, and it takes incredible strength and courage to endure the fire that awaits us if we step out of others’ stories and into our own.
When a person’s private stories—the mythology that bubbles up from within—do not match the public mythology they’ve been given, Joseph Campbell describes the journey as follows:
“They’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience—that is the hero’s deed.”
These identity-level stories we are given are the ones that are most critical to author ourselves, and yet, they are often the most difficult to re-write and express. This is because we fear losing what is at stake if we are rejected. There are many psychological needs that we juggle as humans whether we are aware of that fact or not. A sense of belonging, having nurturing relationships, seeking explanations for why things are the way they are, securing a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives—these are some of the many deep needs that exist in our psyches and feel at stake when we step out in authentic self-expression. For some of us, those of us who want to go on to complete the hero’s deed, there is often a need that supersedes or underlies all the others: authenticity.
There it is again: that cluster of letters “auth.” Authentic comes from the Greek word “authentikos” which comes from the ancient Greek “authentes” which means “one acting on one’s own authority.”
There comes a time when every person must decide who will author their story.
Each of our souls has a story to tell. If we take heart and begin living with our souls penning the story, it’s one of the most powerful and invigorating ways to live. The stakes are higher—there is more to lose and more to gain. An authentic, soul-guided life takes courage and we won’t always receive positive or supportive feedback. But when we live authentically, we are authoring our own stories—with our soul as the ink in the pen. It’s not for everyone to live this way, I suppose. But for me, it’s the only way worth living.