I have this habit of bullet journalling on dayone every night, and it has this feature where it would show all the entries I have made “on this day”. It has been quite enlightening and many times disturbing to read entries from my past selves.
If I didn’t actively read those entries, I would seem like the same person to myself. But having a record of my thoughts have taught me otherwise. The reactions to reading certain entries have evolved over the years. Some entries used to make me feel really sad, then they became nostalgic, and slowly they have become somewhat amusing. I get to know how far I have come by observing my internal reactions to my past writing.
I mostly feel sorry for my past selves now. I see how she was always miserable, how she always seem to be seeking something, how she seemed to always be trapping herself in her thoughts and the story she wanted herself to live in.
Yes, the story. All of us have a story, which probably consists of many micro-stories. We have this story about ourselves, how we want our lives to be, who we want to become, and our perceptions of success. Our government, our family, our peers, our media, take turns to tell us stories of who they want us to become.
In Singapore at least, the predominant story is to get good grades, get into the local university, get a good high-paying job, get married, have kids, ensure your kids get good grades, retire when you are 65, and live happily ever after. Any deviation from this story may get a person negatively judged as a deviant.
My story was to break out of this predominant story and achieve success on my own terms. I so wanted to prove all my detractors wrong, not because I wanted to be right, but because I was very badly hurting from being seen as a failure and a disappointment.
This story of mine became my prison. I ended up like the people who hurt me, by judging myself harshly when I could not live up to the story I told myself about who I wanted to be. I was not capable of understanding myself, what I could do and I couldn’t do. I was doing the same thing people did to me, by making myself do the things I didn’t want to do so that the story in my head can continue its trajectory.
I had stories of how I wanted people to be, just like they have stories of how they wanted me to be. Heartbreak occurred – whether romantically or professionally – when the stories could not sync.
I was too naive to see reality for what it is. Most people are too occupied with fulfilling their own stories to care about our stories. Many of us seek out mentors or heroes, only to be vastly disappointed when they don’t live up to the stories in our heads. We expect them to be a certain way, full of honor and integrity perhaps, when they are as flawed as the rest of us, with terrible insecurities and their own hero journeys they want to live out. If we fit into the roles their stories happen to have available for us, everything will seem fine and dandy. Once we deviate from their stories, hell breaks loose.
It is the same with romantic relationships. We have been deeply conditioned by the media to believe in soulmates, prince and princess charmings. We believe true love will work like magic, isn’t that what the movies tell us, that everything will fall into place once you find the right person? Nobody told us relationships are horribly hard work and can be life-exhausting. We want our partners to be the person we need to fill up the gaps in our lives but in reality they are also overgrown children with their own neuroses and triggers. I don’t believe unconditional love exists, because human beings with an inexhaustible emotional capacity do not exist. The narrative that we can expect people who love us to do anything for us is unhealthy.
The story shapes us and shapes the worlds we live in. It gives us ideas on how other people should be treated, if people belonging to certain other groups should be subordinate or superior, or if we even see them as fellow human beings. It affects how we treat everything around us: animals, the environment, ourselves.
One of the most liberating and yet existential crisis inducing ideas is that: the story is just a story. We don’t have to live in the stories we created for ourselves, neither do we have to adhere to the stories people make up about us. We do not have to be the scholar, doctor, pianist, ballet dancer they imagined us to be, neither do we have to live in a house as big as our paycheck can afford. There are plenty of people who live excellent lives alone without a partner, they are also plenty of married couples who choose not to have children and they still lead fulfilling lives.
Yet it is also reality that stories profoundly impact our reality, as some people’s stories tell them that they have to exterminate entire groups of people, other people’s morals of their stories tell them to deprive rights from other people, some stories tell people that they can freely take things from other people as long as they have power.
Stories have power, and they can be prisons. I think our world has a chance if we get to a point where people start questioning their stories, and the stories being told to them. Where do these stories come from and why do we have to believe them? What are the consequences if we stop believing these stories?
Some time ago – I have no idea when – I stopped believing in my story. I think this is what zen practitioners mean what they say we are all deluded and we should be empty. It is only when we are truly empty that we can let life in. We start to see possibilities, not just the one we had in mind. Instead of that one path we stubbornly want to take at all costs, we may see many other paths ahead of us. Or perhaps we don’t want to take any path and prefer to navigate each step as they come.
I have become nothing, a nobody. It was frightening at first, a nightmare, to become who they said I would be – useless. But perhaps, just perhaps, to be able to stand in nothing, to endure that phase, it makes one wonder if it is really all that terrifying to be seen as nothing. Because the process to even evaluate something as nothing, is also powered by a story.
What do we mean by useful? Is a human being’s life only precious if they are useful? Was I more useful as a designer working in a startup, or am I more useful now writing posts like these? Are we born simply to be measured and tooled?
There is no happy ending to this story. I would like to write that after I emptied myself of my pre-existing stories I started to thrive, but no. The reality is that I continue to be empty and feel empty. It is difficult to live without a story, because there are no next steps, no milestones, no measures of whether I’m on the right path. There is no right path.
But in exchange I am a lot less miserable? I don’t have stories swirling round my head non-stop anymore. I stopped wondering why did things turn out badly, why did he do that to me, why did she not understand, why why why. I stopped trying to reframe events or find some karmic balance in it all.
Sometimes the truth is ugly, or it doesn’t make sense, or we want to seek meaning when there is none. Maybe there is no grand purpose, no test, no silver lining. Maybe life can be grand as much as it can be cruel, it can give you things and yet take more.
We all have different ways to cope. Some people cope by having a story they can believe in. I prefer to believe there is no actual story. We humans make up the stories: sometimes they are great and inspiring, other times they are terrifying and oppressive. To be able to tell a story and make someone believe it is a great responsibility, a responsibility I’m not sure if we were ready to bear.
Maybe believing I can live without a story in my head is also a story. People including scholars believe we need myths and/or meaning to live our lives. But who knows what will form in that empty space?
Be empty, or trapped?