Sunél’s Blog | The stories we tell ourselves

Sunél Veldtman, | 08 May 2020

A blog by Carl Richards (they are the shortest, most impactful blogs on money and life that you do not want to miss) alerted me to the gap between facts and stories. And the potential impact of that gap.

COVID-19 is a good example for illustrating this: the facts, the story and the gap. 

Right now, there are known facts about the spread of the COVID-19 virus. There are also known facts about the lockdown restrictions. It is true that some of the facts may not be 100% correct. There may be more people who have died of the virus than we know of. But we base our knowledge on the facts that we have at hand. 

You must, of course, start with the right facts!

Fact:  COVID-19 is not like the flu (if you believe that, you have the wrong facts and you should seek out a broad range of factual, preferably scientific writing about COVID-19).

The story: What you believe about those facts, are the stories you make up. All of us make up those stories. And none can claim to have a monopoly on the right story. Some of us may believe that the government has failed dismally in their response to COVID-19. Others praise their response. Some have no hope, where others feel more hopeful about the co-operation and community spirit that has resulted from our current reality. Same facts, different stories.

But in between the facts and stories, lie our emotions and our thoughts. This is the gap.  Our emotions and thoughts inform our stories and are influenced by our personalities, our pasts, the people we believe and the pain we feel now. We are all in distress now for many different reasons. There will be much emotion in between fact and story. There will be passionate differences in the storylines. And these differences may cause even more pain.

We mistake stories for facts, the impact of which can be harmful. But, Carl Richards asks, “What if we didn’t?

What if we were honest about our own path from fact to story. What if we questioned how we arrived at our story? Interrogated why we believed what we do? Unpacked which emotions led us to our story? What if we were aware, in real-time, of the difference between the two? How differently would so many of our conversations go?

Having this kind of awareness is what allows us to be kind with one another’s stories. It pushes us to not confuse story for fact.  When unpacking a story, you’re unpacking all the events, traits, pain or people that led to that story. And you need to be mindful and unpack them carefully.  Because when you misjudge that gap, the impact could be explosive.

I learnt that recently when I nearly destroyed a dear relationship by the way I unpacked my friend’s story. I apologised for my clumsy unpacking. And then I tried to understand more about their gap and how they arrived at their story. It is the essence of empathy – putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand their perspective. It doesn’t mean that your story will or need to change – it just helps you to understand their story and respond with kindness.

What are the stories you believe, the stories you hear and how is it working out for you?