In the photograph I was staring at there was a woman who appeared naked. I couldn’t really tell because she was facing away from the camera, lying across a hammock made from a fish net. The top of her head was cradled by the net hammock. Her long straight hair draped over the edge and fell like a waterfall. Her legs were crossed and her feet seemed like they were pointing at the square open window in the adobe wall. Outside the window, the world was reduced to twin shades of blue. They were bound and separated by the invisible line where the sky meets the sea. The woman whose home it was caught me looking at the photograph. I’d been gazing at it for awhile. Long enough she walked over to where I lingered before the black framed photograph, admiring its simple appeal. She asked me if I liked it.
For some reason I wasn’t prepared for this question. I stammered and told her what I was thinking, “It’s a paradox… The woman… she’s lying on a hammock made from a fish net. It’s like she’s free and trapped at the same time. I like it.”
The woman looked at me like a puppy dog. Her head cocked to the side, somewhat confused and surprised. Then she turned and stared at the photograph. She nodded. Slowly words emerged from her like air deflating from a balloon, “Hmmm…. I like that… I’ve never seen it… that way before… Did you take a class in art history?”
She was right. I sounded like a freshman speaking up in their their first art class. But as naïve as I was, somehow my honest appraisal re-framed her photograph for her. I gave her a different story. I changed the way she looked at a picture she’d seen a thousand times. Which made me wonder for a moment: Isn’t that what we’re doing every day? Aren’t we always framing and re-framing stories, both for ourselves and for others? That’s pretty much life, right?
You tell yourself the story of your life
Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And in this way, you are both the storyteller and the audience. Telling yourself the story of your life is what you’re doing when you process stimulus from your senses. You weave all the disparate sensations together into a fabric of perception. And that understanding of what’s going on within and without you is how you tell yourself what’s happening.
Down at the cellular level, you’ll find the basic building blocks of your story. There you arrange the letters that spell out your blood and bones become the words of your body’s narrative. And from them you build the paragraphs of your arms, the stanzas of your eyes, the pages of your legs.
When you’re injured, let’s say it’s a deep gash; your individual cells know the story of your whole body. They read it from the codes of your DNA. And they tell the story to each other as they work together to rebuild your body back to the way it was before you were injured. I marvel at how our bodies heal themselves. Of course, I’ve had lots of time to appreciate this phenomenon because I’m often healing. Watching one of my destroyed limbs slowly rebuild over the course of a few weeks, I’ve witnessed my body’s story be recounted down at the cellular level. And the same is true for you and yours. Your body knows its story.
Then there are your conscious and subconscious levels of thought. Your mind is responsible for telling you the story of your life beyond your physical body. It remembers and constructs from your experiences the story of you. It weaves all your victories and defeats, your joys and humiliations, your fears and your proud moments, into one long narrative. And you carry that story around inside you, measuring the future against the past.
Every day you add to your story. Like an open .doc file of your life you access all those memories and you rewrite and rearrange them at will. You do this seamlessly, both consciously and subconsciously. Your story is the product of how you process the events and sensations of this thing we call life. It’s how you make sense of it all. It’s just like how you dream. (And who knows? Life may be a dream. Never underestimate the strength of Buddhist street knowledge).
An important question to ask is: Other than you, who influences the writing of your story?
Your parents, your immediate family, the home you were raised in, these will all influence you. And their influence is important and formative. Then comes along friends, schoolmates, bullies, enemies, teachers, coaches, bandleaders, etc. and they all affect your story. And as you get older, you’ll hear over and over again:
DON’T let other people’s opinions affect you!
ALWAYS consider the source of criticism!
LIVE your own life!
Apparently, we all struggle with this. It’s why we share incorrectly attributed motivational quotes from Marilyn Monroe on Facebook. They may be wrong, but we share them because they help us to remember essential wisdom. Marilyn is just the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
So, rather than “dance like no one’s watching,” how do you “live like no one’s watching?”
How can you be your truest self… without having to fight to be who you want to be? No one wants to live a war.
And is such fierce independence a good approach to living? Wouldn’t that much unchecked individualism turn the whole world into Los Angeles? (I’ve seen how those people drive. You don’t want that.)
The best way for you to live and be the way you want to be… and not be at war is:
ALWAYS be the one with final approval of your story. You tell the tale.
You can just accept what others say about you, and tacitly agree when they describe you as fat, lazy, stupid, terrible with money, always late, and not to be trusted with houseplants. But when you don’t disagree, at least inside your head, then you validate their thoughts/opinions. You let their negative messages find a space in your subconscious. Don’t do that to yourself.
If you let someone else’s opinions slip past your conscious filters, you’ll come to accept them as casually as you might agree that it’s a sunny day. Their negative assessments are accepted like some statement of an easily observable fact. That’s how someone else’s opinions find a home in your mind. They don’t even have to fight their way in. They can slide right on in like some boring small talk about the weather.
But it’s your story!
So… how do you make sure you are the author of your life? (You’ll like this. It’s terribly, wickedly, childishly, manipulatively simple.)
Be Your Own Spin Doctor!
When I say be your own spin doctor, I’m not referring to that dangerously infectious ‘90s jam band. I don’t mean these guys:
No one’s suggesting you live like Bonnaroo is your way of life.
When I say spin doctor, I mean these guys:
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says it best:
: a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public in order to influence what people think about it
Spin doctors are magicians. They’re charlatans. They’re masters of re-framing a narrative. And they do so like mercenaries, fighting a war of public opinion. And with careful, yet massaged language they shift the focus. They widen perspectives. They re-evaluate, de-value, and re-apply value and meaning to different aspects of the story they re-tell. And they make sure everyone can repeat the story they’re telling. They’re terribly effective for corporations because they minimize damage. And they’d be great for you for the same reason. Only you can’t afford their services.
The question is: How do you become your own spin doctor?
My friend, Derek, the guy who came up with BYOH: Be Your Own Hero, told me about his recent attempts at optimism. We regularly chat like teenage girls, texting back and forth, phone calls to talk about our sick-ass weekends, whatever. Stoked by a recent realization he told me how he’s named his new approach to all the bad news, other people’s shitty opinions, and the situations that are out of his control: Be Your Own Spin Doctor.
He told me anytime something shitty happens to him he immediately re-frames it. He doesn’t let his first instinct of storytelling be the one he prints and save. He told me: You just edit your life story. (It’s yours, you can do whatever you want)
It works like this:
Let’s say you’re in a parking lot and back your car into a light post, denting your fender. Most folks get pissed, at themselves, or at the stupid fuckers who built the parking lot, some cuss at the light post; but the next thing that happens is key. People either cast themselves as the victims of circumstance, victims of their own “stupidity,” or they’re unlucky, or at worst, they’re sloppy untrustworthy masters of their fate. Most folks will come away reinforcing their opinion of themselves in one direction or another. But I suggest you consider a fourth option. If you are your own spin doctor, soon as shit goes south, you get to work. You didn’t just prove your brother’s right and you are a shitty driver. No! You just made your car less likely to get broken into the next time you park in a crappy-ass neighborhood in order to go see your friend’s band perform. Bam! Re-framed! You street-camo’d your car. Suddenly, it’s like Brooklyn in 2013… no Biggie!
Here’s the process you use to create and reinforce your expectations for yourself:
Something bad happens…
1. Your perception creates the meaning (I fucked up!)
2. Meaning motivates your behavior (I’m such an idiot!)
3. Your behavior creates/follows patterns (Why am I always such an idiot?)
4. The patterns you follow determine your results (I need to lie to cover up)
5. Results create your future perception/expectations (I fucked up again!)
You gotta grab hold of that cycle at Step 1. You determine the meaning of your actions. Your decide the perception of events. Don’t be lazy and allow past evaluations to color present events. It’s your life, so you get to pick what everything means.
Spin doctoring works in politics, media, really, anywhere. And it works on the big and small stories. When you re-frame the story so it benefits you, that’s how you wind up with a new perspective. You’re not lying. It’s all subjective anyway. You’re not changing facts, you’re rearranging their value.
If your boyfriend says you’re fat… that doesn’t mean you’re fat. It means you just learned you have an asshole for a boyfriend.
If a woman says you’re bad in bed… it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible lay. It just means you don’t have any sexual chemistry with her.
If someone says you dress poorly… fuck ’em. All that means is you have other concerns that matter more to you than what matters to them.
The important point is it’s your life. Be who you want to be. If others judge you, criticize you, or attempt to make you feel badly for your choices/behavior, then borrow some of the magic spells of spin doctors and make sure your life story is yours to tell. Shift the focus. Assign the meaning. Find your narrative. Manage your opinions and your expectations of yourself. Let another person hold their opinion and you can hold your truth.
Obviously, don’t be a shithead and just ignore the opinions of others. That helps no one. And it denies you valuable feedback. But just because someone says something about you that doesn’t make it true. Remember, it’s all subjective anyway.
Think of it like that photograph of the woman on the fish-net hammock. Your life is just as paradoxical; you’re both trapped and free at the same time. The opinions of others are no different than the fish-net hammock. And just like that naked woman relaxing in the soft light of afternoon, you can rest atop the net that would trap you, and use it like a hammock to support you as you daydream and enjoy the freedom of just being alive. It all depends on how you look at it.