The Stories We Tell

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.

I chose to move back to the country, to a place much like where I was raised, after years of pursuing a career in urban environments, traveling crowded highways on the roadmap to Success.

I gave up on my career track and its benefits package for the chance to live closer to nature now, not when I retire, and to raise my child in a cleaner, more wholesome environment. I decided to put down roots in fertile soils, not asphalt, and to nurture a sense of belonging and connectedness rather than the usury millrace to which I'd grown accustomed.

Or so I tell myself.

Rational Chaos by Philippe Sainte-Laudy
Rational Chaos by Philippe Sainte-Laudy

This is how we make sense of the day-to-day chaos in our lives. We tell stories to explain the decisions we made and the actions we took. We construct elaborate justifications for the wrong turns and credit foresight and planning for our lucky breaks.

We rarely, if ever, admit to following whims or being blinded by emotions. We assume that we are rational beings who act freely after calculating the pros and cons of a situation. That's the spin we put on our life stories.

But we are not so rational as we like to think. We feel that there's an "I" in control, reviewing the facts and giving directions, but cognitive neuroscientists have shown that this is just an illusion that our brains work hard to produce and maintain.

Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry and colleague Michael Gazzaniga investigated the split nature of the two sides of the human brain and discovered that each hemisphere can exercise its own free will. The left hemisphere, which specializes in language skills, likes to weave stories about the person's actions, even when it has no knowledge of what the right hemisphere is doing. When researchers masked the left hemisphere of a patient so that it had no way of knowing what had happened when the right hemisphere was running the show, it still responded to questions about the patient's actions and invented plausible, but totally made-up, stories about what had happened and why.

"We have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient’s left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brain," writes psychologist Steven Pinker in "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" (Viking Press, 2002).

"The conscious mind -- the self or soul -- is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief."

Truth becomes difficult to find or recognize.

After more than a dozen years as a journalist I came to the realization that what I reported as truth, or pursued as truth, was usually no more than what people told me they believed was true. I repeated their spin, perhaps with a little spin of my own to make it read better or sound more interesting.

Politicians spin stories to explain their actions and decisions. Do they believe their own tales? Do I believe mine?

Was it a conscious decision I made to move back to the country, or was it the agrarian genetics in my blood that drew me here? The desire to grow things, to live among animals, to own land and be out in the open is not entirely learned. I am the Frenchman tending his vineyards and a Norse fisherman returning from the sea. I am the Volga German growing tulips and the Irishman cultivating potatoes. When I turn the earth, I turn my soul. I carry memories of many soils inside my skull. Carved into my brain are inclinations I only faintly understand.

Like the unexpected hailstorm or an untimely frost, we are mere whims of nature. Inner forces, instincts if you will, motivate us more than we like to believe.

Our conscious minds may not control how we act, but merely tell us a story about our actions. Yet, these stories are critically important. They are not the whole truth, and sometimes are not even based in reality, but they help us make sense to ourselves.

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