Stories are interesting things.

We all gently warp reality with our different perspectives, beliefs, and opinions that don’t always reflect the true nature of the things we see. This warping can influence the way we perceive who we are, other people, and the very world around us.

“Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is.
And you must bend to its power or live a lie.”

Miyamoto Musashi

Sometimes the formation of these stories is subconscious, they can simply be the result of your unconscious beliefs, values and experiences.

However, other times they can be far more conscious and deliberate decisions, made to warp the truth and avoid hard realities that you’d rather not accept.

Regardless of the form our stories take, they have the potential to either be a source of support, positivity, and motivation, or a source of negativity, limitation and suffering.

For your own well being, it’s important that your stories work with you rather than against you. To achieve this we first need awareness, and then understanding.

How Stories Cause Suffering:

Stories, when applied to our lives, often create a distance between us and the truth. The further this distance becomes, the higher the risk that our stories will cause us suffering.

Why do stories cause suffering?

The suffering tends to raise its head when you get into a situation in which reality conflicts with the stories you tell yourself.

Perhaps someone does something that conflicts with your story of who they should be. Or maybe the world doesn’t align with how you think it should behave.

Simply put, stories form expectation and when expectations are not met they cause resistance and suffering.

Below we’ll discuss how some stories can help us view the world more positively, and how others can risk causing us unnecessary suffering.

We’ll also discuss tools we can use to identify stories in the world around us and within our own minds in the form of beliefs.

Building an awareness of the benefits and risks of these stories, we can then understand how to use them to our advantage, as a tool for living a good life. This awareness will also help make you catch stories and beliefs before they root themselves in the mind and lead us to suffer unconsciously.

Towards the end we’ll go through the risks associated with stories, and to finish I’ll outline things you can do practically to help use stories as tools to your advantage, rather than allow them to seep into your beliefs, values and character without you knowing, where they risk becoming detrimental to your well being, like weeds in a garden.

The author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and more recently 21 lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari describes this concept as having stories serve us, rather than us serve them.

What are stories?

So, what are stories?

To begin I think it’s important to say that stories have been one of the greatest tools available to our species. Our collective ability share and listen to stories has allowed us to become the most powerful animal on the planet.

We don’t have large claws or rows of sharp teeth, we are not particularly strong or resilient compared to other creatures. We do however possess extraordinary minds.

The human brain has given us the capacity for complex storytelling, and through these stories we can do what no other animal can do; exchange large amounts of information quickly and efficiently.

Stories have not only given us the ability to share large quantities of information, they have also allowed us to bring one another together under collectively agree beliefs, values and goals. Our stories can rally us to a cause by speaking directly to our values and our needs, they can spread brotherhood, violence, joy, fear or peace.

This human ability to communicate has meant that hundreds, thousands and millions of humans are able to work together collaboratively, achieving far more than was previously possible in our early history. A history of fragmented social groups, warring tribes and individual countries with differing beliefs, values and cultures.

However, there is a darker side to our storytelling. They can also be destructive. Our bloodied past paints a stark picture of how differing beliefs and differing cultural narratives can cause misunderstanding, intolerance and violence.

These days, conflict between different groups of people is caused more by the stories we grow up in than anything else. Stories create culture, culture creates belief and belief influences behaviour.

With this in mind, we can structure the context of stories as two sides of the same coin.

  • Firstly we know that stories have helped bind us together in collaborative social groups. They have increased our numbers from mere hundreds to millions, and in doing so we have multiplied our ability to solve problems, develop solutions and progress.

  • On the other side of the same coin, stories are responsible for our differences.  Everyone walks a unique journey through life, as we do we pick up different lessons and stories along the way. Our uniqueness results in differing beliefs, values and opinions.

    As individuals this variation can create anything from a Tibetan monk to a member of a drug cartel. As a culture it can create anything from safe, wealthy and prosperous communities, to violent, criminal cities, to war torn dictatorships.

So what are these stories that have allowed us to come so far, while at the same time creating so much variation in our ways of life?

The Definition of Story:

I’ll outline the definition I’m using for “story” to provide some context for the ideas and the examples that we’ll be exploring.

At its foundation a story is something that we can identify easily for ourselves by asking the following question:

If humans did not exist, would this thing exist? If the answer is no, then you are likely thinking of a story. A creation of mankind.

For example. Trees will exist in the absence of humanity, magnetism will exist, gravity, electro-chemistry, thermodynamics, Newton’s Laws, the conservation of momentum, and photosynthesis will all exist. These are things that exist outside of human thought, things that we have observed, not created.

However, capitalism, democracy, communism, the stock market, Nazi Germany, Christianity, monotheism and polytheism, Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings, and even philosophy would not exist. They are products of humanity, seeds of the human mind. These are examples of stories because they would not exist if humanity had not created them.

This distinction can also go some way to explain why more and more people are becoming atheist or agnostic, while religion is in decline. As our science develops and we begin to answer more questions through observation, we remove the need for our stories to explain the world around us.

That being said. stories are not bad, they are necessary. As we’ve mentioned, stories have historically allowed us to work together, bind us in common pursuits and work towards creating the quality of life that we enjoy today.

We can add further structure to our concept of stories by dividing them into two groups.

  1. Stories of the Individual

  2. Stories of the Culture

Individual Stories:

Starting with the individual;

Each and every one of us holds within our brain, a library of information. A collection of lessons, observations and experiences that have formed our beliefs, our thoughts, and our values.

Some of this will be made up of facts and observation, some will be assumptions, generalisations, ideas held only on faith, or our trust in what other people have told us. Not all of it is necessarily true or beneficial to our own well being.

Our individual beliefs are often personal and deeply private. Some of us make a conscious effort with personal development, and as a result we have a number of beliefs that we have chosen intentionally to improve our lives. Others of us go through life mostly unconsciously adopting beliefs from the world and people around us.

Whatever path we choose to take, we will all have varying numbers of conscious and unconscious beliefs, a complex soup of ideas, thoughts and perspectives.

In isolation, a belief can be relatively straightforward. With a little effort, we can become aware of it, examine it, and decide whether it is realistic and beneficial, or false and destructive. We can then try to understand the cause of the belief and attempt to change it to improve our well-being. This activity can be thought of as fixing a bug in a computer program if our minds were running software.

However, in reality, it’s not as easy as that. We are not made up of a single belief, our character is a complex mixture of hundreds or even thousands of interwoven beliefs, thoughts, assumptions, biases, and lessons.

This complexity makes any observation or analysis difficult to outline and articulate, but if we want to improve the quality of our lives, we must try to navigate this complexity and examine the conditions of our minds.

Many of our common beliefs are stories. They would not exist if humanity had not created them, and from our earlier definition, this makes them stories. Some are more widespread than others and come in the form of pre-existing frameworks like Stoic philosophy, ideology, religion, cults, superstitions, or concepts like destiny, fate, karma, and spirituality.

Some beliefs are more personal and unique. They can be created by us as individuals through our experiences or more intentionally through private mental exercises such as meditation or visualisation, where we develop an image in our mind of where we’d like to be in the future and what kind of person we want to be. How do we define success? What does happiness look like for us? Etc.

As tools for living a good life, self-examination, visualisation, and philosophy can be very powerful. They challenge us to question ourselves and the world. They help us to develop an awareness of the nature of our mind, form our character, and provide a compass for its direction based on what we believe is right and true. They do not require us to believe in false information, nor do they lock us into a rigid and unquestionable ideology.

Stoicism & The Mind

Marcus Aurelius once said:

The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts”.

And Epictetus said:

Men are not disturbed by things but the view they have of them…

Both ancient Stoics picked up on a common theme. Our minds dictate how we live, just as the lens of a camera dictates the quality of the picture. A dirty lens will produce a poor image. A mind full of negative and limiting beliefs produces a life of suffering.

Therefore, the beliefs we have and the stories we hold will directly affect our experience. Luckily for us, we have the power to change our beliefs, and in doing so, we can change our experiences and get closer to living a good life. This is our responsibility.

Self Examination

However, while using stories and beliefs to our advantage can be a powerful tool for living good and happy lives, they can just as easily create suffering, hatred, jealousy, anxiety and depression, if left un-examined.

It’s our individual responsibility to examine our beliefs and make sure they are serving us, rather than hindering us. This can take time and a fair amount of effort. And even when we have developed an awareness to see our thoughts more clearly, some of our beliefs and stories may be deeply rooted from childhood or hiding under layers of experience and even pain.

It is extremely likely that many, if not all, of us have some deeply rooted beliefs that are causing some sort of suffering in our lives. Beliefs that are picked up unconsciously as we’ve grown up and moved through the world. It’s up to us to find them, question them, and if possible, change them, like cleaning the lens of the camera.

Examples of these limiting beliefs can include ideas like the expectation that life should always be fair. It can also include more popular ideas such as the law of attraction which promises the practitioner that if they hold in their mind a vision of the future, you will send ripples through the world and the universe will listen and rearrange itself based on this vision to make it come true.

This seems like a very childish expectation of the world, and it seems more than a little arrogant to think that there is a conscious universe that will rearrange itself based on your individual beliefs. It also creates a narrative whereby we rely on the universe to provide for us rather than taking ownership and responsibility for our own well-being. A more mature expectation would be that the universe is indifferent to us in the same way the ocean is indifferent to the fish it contains. It’s therefore up to us to earn the lives we want and accept life as it comes.

As a final thought before we move on, it’s not possible for us to know the intricate details and workings of everything around us; we have to fill in the gaps in our understanding with our own assumptions, estimations, and details. For example, when we have an interaction with someone, we can’t know them completely, so we build an estimation of who they are. In this way, much of our life is influenced by our beliefs, because it is our beliefs that flavour these assumptions and estimations.

Cultural Stories:

Let’s move on to cultural stories.

We as humans like to bind into groups, there is a certain amount of tribalism within human nature, and often we bind through stories. When enough people agree on the same story, it begins to form part of our culture.

Collective cultural stories are those that draw people together, for better or for worse. At their best, they allow us to flourish, improve equality, develop technology and medicine, and provide healthcare and education.

They can allow us to progress at an accelerated pace than is otherwise possible in smaller social groups, and in doing so, we improve our quality of life as we work towards common goals and share our resources for the benefit of the group.

It’s also worth mentioning that, similar to the individual, not all cultural stories benefit us; there are cultural stories that bring people together to work towards destructive outcomes, ones that cause a large amount of suffering. We have seen examples of this in the past. Holy wars, genocide, discrimination, and slavery, for example.

It is important to consider the impact of such damaging stories and narratives. In doing so, we can develop an awareness of how much suffering bad stories can cause, and we are then better able to avoid them, rather than allow them to slip by, into our minds or our culture, where they can root themselves and begin to grow and spread.

Day to day, we come into contact with multiple stories. Whenever we buy something, we are participating in the story of money.

With money, we have culturally agreed that some pieces of paper has some value. Without the agreed upon story of money, this bit of paper is worth very little.

The story of money has allowed economies to grow far beyond what they would be if we were still trading in labour and goods. For example, it’s much easier for me to go out and buy a new pair of shoes with my money than it would be for me to agree with the shoe maker how much milk from my cows he would like for his nice new pair of trainers.

Most of us have also agreed on the story of being a participating citizen of a nation. We pay taxes so that an education system is available for our young people, healthcare can take care of our sick, roads can facilitate our travel, a police force can reduce crime, the national grid can allow us to watch Netflix, charge our phones and keep the our fridges running.

We are also unconsciously interacting with smaller stories as well. When we play poker or a board game, we agree upon the rules of the game. If we want to trade stocks we participate in the story of the stock market and if we go to pray we have bought into the stories of religion.

In other, more direct ways, stories are also used by media distributors to make us think in certain ways, to romanticise worldviews or demonise groups or cultures.

Advertisers have us believe stories to sell us products. Perfume adverts show romance and mystery, fast food adverts show us images of happy families sitting around a table sharing a meal with smiling faces. Pharmaceuticals show us people bright faced, healthy and full of energy.

These types of stories are used to sell products by showing us what our lives could be like if we bought into their service. Of course, the stories are rarely honest or accurate, but as advertisers know, people spend more money due to emotion than logic.

The Risk

So, what are the risks here that can prevent us from living a good life?

One risk comes when we confuse a story with reality.

When we can no longer make the distinction between what is real and what is a story, our beliefs risk becoming inflexible. This inflexibility often has no room for conflicting views or contradicting evidence, and this resistance risks us becoming intolerant, defensive and irrational. In the worst cases this can cause violence, hate crime, intolerance and even war.

We have seen example of this in religious extremism, racism, blind belief in cults, and more recently we have examples of this in identity politics and some social justice movements.

There is another risk that has the potential to be even more dangerous; Bad ideas can make good people do bad things. And if there is enough of a cultural change, good people can become caught in a bad idea that can influence millions. World War 2 saw an entire nation collectively round up Jews and perform some of the worst actions in modern history.

Saying that, I do not believe that all of these men and women were evil. I even believe that most of them were good people, they were just people who were caught up in a bad idea, a bad collective story that cause unimaginable suffering. I also believe that you or I would have probably done similar things if placed in the same shoes, at the same time with the same upbringing and with the same information at hand. Bad ideas can make good people do bad things and it only takes one bad idea. One bad story.


Example (good):

Stoic philosophy is a good example and links nicely to our previous posts here. Using the logical test we described earlier, Stoicism does not occur naturally outside the human mind,  and by our definition this makes it a story. However, we can use the story of Stoicism to our advantage and adopt it as a framework to develop resilience to the hardships of life, and reduce suffering.

Some of the practical teachings of Stoicism explain that in order to develop robust happiness, we must stop trying to control what is outside our influence and focus on what is within our control, primarily our thoughts and beliefs. To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it comes. 

In doing so we prevent the frustration, bitterness and unhappiness from wasting energy on things we can’t do anything about.

Stoicism also teaches us that we do not suffer because of the things that happen around us, but more due to our perception of these events. We shouldn’t act the victim and blame the world for our problems, we should look within, take ownership of our suffering and work to change it to live better lives.

Example (bad):

A second example if how beliefs can affect our lives comes in the form of a War story.

World War 2 saw American and Japanese forces fight a gruelling campaign in the theatre of the Asian Pacific. A conflict that came to an end in 1945 with the rest of the war.

One soldier, however, did not surrender in 1945. A Japanese intelligence officer called Hiroo Onoda stayed at his post in the Philippines with three of his men and continued to engage the local population and the police in guerrilla ambushes for a further 29 years. Burning rice stores, shooting at Filipinos and obstructing day to day life.

The Japanese government even sent aircraft over the area, dropping pictures of family members and letters in an effort to draw out the last holdouts and bring them home.

The letters explained that the war had ended, it was time to return. But Onoda and his three companions saw this to be a trick and ignored the call.

By 1972 Onoda’s companions had all been killed, leaving the soldier alone in the forests of the Philippines, still believing in the war he was fighting for,

It wasn’t until 1974 that Onoda met a fellow countryman who told him that the war had ended. Norio Suzuki who was described by Onoda as a hippy boy, was travelling the world in search of a panda bear, a yeti and Lieutenant Onoda himself.

It took Suzuki four days of shouting Onoda’s name in the pacific rain forest to finally track the man down. Onoda once said,

“This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out …”. 

Still Onoda did not return to Japan. He told Suzuki that he would only leave upon the order from a superior officer. At this Suzuki travelled back to Japan with photos and evidence that Onoda was still alive and wished to be relieved of his duty.

The government then tracked down Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was now no longer in the military and sold books for a living,. They flew him to the Philippines where he relieved Onoda who returned home to a warm reception after 29 years.

Based on our own beliefs some will see this as a respectable dedication to his country and his people. Others will see it as a needless loss of life of both his friends and the locals.

Onoda’s friend Suzuki later died in November 1986 in an avalanche  while searching for his yeti. His belief in this creature’s existence led him to die at the age of 37. Again, some will see this as the passion and drive to push boundaries and satisfy the nature of human curiosity. Others may see it as a dangerous and foolish wild goose chase.

In both cases, the stories that these men believed drove them down paths that deeply affected their lives.

What can we do?

So, what can we do with this information to live better lives?

To begin, we need to develop an awareness. We can’t use stories and beliefs to our advantage until we are first aware of what they are and why we believe them.

This awareness is most easily developed through meditation. Sitting and observing your thoughts and feelings. In doing so we can become familiar with the patterns of our mind and begin to see the underlying beliefs, expectations and stories that are responsible for our thoughts, actions and reactions.

After awareness we can then challenge. Before being sentenced to death Socrates said that “The un-examined life is not worth living.” In examination we can challenge and question our beliefs,

    • Are they constructive? Such as:

      • There is plenty of opportunity in the world.

      • People are mostly good, we’re all just doing our best.

      • We’re living in the best time in history.

      • I will make the best of what is within my power and and accept the rest as it comes.

    • Or are they destructive? Such as:

      • People are idiots, selfish and mean.

      • I can control other people.

      • People should respect me.

      • Life is terrible, there is no opportunity.

      • I’m so unlucky, the world has it in for me.

      • The Earth is flat.

We can also;

    • Make an effort to be aware of the difference between stories and reality

    • Day to day, we can also try and understand what the purpose of the stories around us. Is it to sell you something? To make you vote? Or is it something we tell ourselves to validate bad behaviour?

    • Even our own expectations can be in the form of stories. They can be about what we expect from the world, what we expect from other people and what we expect from ourselves. It’s worth spending some time to understand our expectations, if they are unrealistic they could be setting you up to get frustrated, jealous, angry or upset. Because often it’s not true and events don’t happen as we wish.

Amor Fati

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