Writing my obituary in journalism class, tears were welling in my eyes. The assignment was meant to teach us the form. I took it to existential depths.
Dying young, I felt like such a failure. Obituaries are meant to celebrate the life of the dead and I felt like I hadn't accomplished anything up until that point. I hadn't lived enough life to write down. I wouldn't be able to impress the precious few who would come to my funeral. Twenty years of breathing and a disappointing resume.
Whether you're assigned to be or not, you're a storyteller. You spin tales about the kind of person you are, from the late sleeper or the Crossfit vet to the metalhead or the introvert. You outline your political stance and your family history. You draft lists of dreams and ingredients that would make you personally happy. You hold the pen and string the narrative together.
There is even scientific research finding more and more benefits of this bullshit obituary assignment. Tara Parker-Pope wrote about expressive writing for The New York Times Well Blog:
"The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health."
We know that with great power comes great responsibility. Spiderman taught us that. But changing the story can go either way. We can be so down on ourselves we don't see the sunshine, or we can be so gosh-darn positive we don't recognize that some things just plain suck.
Author Ryan Holiday was writing about this at the age I was close to bawling my eyes out in a college classroom. In a blog post called The Narrative Fallacy, Holiday wrote, "No question, the use of story is a persuasive tactic. But why? Because they please and pleasure the senses. When stories are applied to self-perception, they are called delusions."
I'm all for the delusions. What's most important is not how factual or "real" our story sounds, it is what we do with it. We're not denying reality, we're bending it. We're in the Matrix. If a better story means we offer more to the world, right on.
Whereas my delusion was the need to be a prodigy by twenty, the motivation was all wrong. I see that now. The need to be "special" was simply a craving for attention, adoration, love. I wasn't thinking of the change I wanted to see in the world.
My motivation now is to offer something to this world that becomes my own story and helps other people write theirs. As Joe Rogan said, see yourself as the hero.
Of course, it feels easier said than done. By nature, it is. But why not try it?
I'll offer one of my stories. I'm the heaviest I've ever been. 171 lbs. I've comforted myself with the meathead credo that says muscle weighs more than fat, and lately I've been praying at the Iron Church. Writing my story out, though, forced me to see the truth. My roommate Rachel bakes a mean batch of cookies. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, green tea, you name it. And I ate a ton of them. Among other things. No regrets. I was pretending that moving to California was an extended vacation and I'd go back to my healthy habits and normal life one day, without all the weight coming with me. Or, hell, maybe I thought I'd burn the extra calories when grunting in the gym. Neither was the case.
I may be stronger than ever but I'm a bit mushier too. While I can recall times in my life I've been more fit, that's not the best story I could tell myself. I needed to ask myself, if this is my story, what's next? A good story needs conflict and resolution. Writing down your situation flattens the big, scary idea. Then you have time to breathe and ask yourself about the resolution. What would Rocky do? Gag down some eggs. What would Popeye do? Add some spinach.
Physician Richard Feynman famously said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." Stories can steal the show. Are you fooling yourself? Are you certain of something that's not so solid? Have you tried everything?
What scares us about right now is change. We want to control the rate at which things zip around. We want to control this story. It is a double-edged sword - we want some things to change and we want other things to stay the same, forever, untouched.
Author Danielle LaPorte reflected on the tenderness of love at the Yoga Journal Live convention this week. She called it the anxiety of permanence. You fall for someone, hard, and there is often this tiny, painful splinter of concern: Will you love me this much tomorrow? Will you always be here, with me?
Comedian Duncan Trussell observed the stupefying effects of anger with Create Your Own Religion author Daniele Bolelli on the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast: "When I get really fuckin' angry, 90 percent of the time the anger is not justified anger. It's based on the idea that some state that is happening temporarily will continue forever. So the anger comes because I think if I don't do something about this now, for the rest of my life I'll be experiencing this bullshit so I gotta fight. But the truth of the matter is most of the time, whatever the situation you're in happens to be, it's temporary. It's not gonna last."
Our future-making machines are amazing and alarming at the same time. The pull of the present is so strong we offer ourselves delusions. In the end, most are just chapters. You are your stories and you're not. But if you tell yourself some good ones, you might go far.
Why not write down your happy ending?