A pin looking for a balloon

Every one of us is a living storybook – a book that has a beginning, a plot and an end. When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them. When we want to know who another person is, we ask them to share part of their story with us. Storytelling is how we try to make sense in an ever-changing world of shifting identities and experiences.

Not only do we all have different stories to share, but we also have a story we create about ourselves. Psychologist Dan McAdams calls this our “narrative identity”. So what is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves at this moment? Here we are, locked down, confined to our homes, and nothing is certain. Someone says this virus is like a pin looking for a balloon to pop, and it is with disbelief, and even horror, that we watch the different balloons popping.

An example of such a balloon is the economic meltdown we are witnessing at the moment. The shops are closed and the streets are empty. Share prices are tumbling. Oil prices today crashed through zero, closing out the day at minus $37 per barrel! It seems that no institution is escaping this – be that health care, education, politics, or religion. Flaws and shortcomings are being laid bare and somewhere amidst all these popping balloons are we, each in our own balloon, watching all of this unfolding. And the more the balloons pop, the more scared and uncertain we become. This is understandable. However, what should really scare us is how we have somehow built our whole life story and even our identity around the existence of these balloons. They came to define us.

We tell ourselves that, if these balloons pop, we are lost. Without them, we are nothing. They provide us with our social standing, our status, our identity. We tell ourselves that our future depends on them. But really, what if all of that was only a bubble that has now been popped? What if we were building our identity on superficial falsities all along? Things like our jobs and our titles, our bank balances and our fancy clothes, the stamps in our passports or our friends in high places, our houses and our cars. They have become our “narrative identity” – the story we tell ourselves of who we are.

According to Dan McAdams, the stories we tell about what is happening to us depends on how we interpret our experiences. There are two kinds of tales we can spin; redemption and contamination stories. With a contamination story, people interpret their lives as going from good to bad. These are the doomsayers. Conversely, there are redemptive stories that tell about the transition from bad to good. People who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations, he found, are more likely to tell such redemptive stories.

Hopefully our stories about this pandemic will be more the redemptive kind of stories about a world that transitioned from bad to good. We can do it. We can write a new story for the planet. In fact, it seems that we have already started. There are encouraging signs of that. For starters, we seem to becoming humane again. We are starting to see each other again. We are reaching out and are more compassionate. We are becoming more appreciative of the people we share our lives with and are learning not to take things for granted. We are rediscovering that we are loving, and caring human beings by design and that is what our “narrative identity” should be. That is what we should tell ourselves about ourselves. Together we can write a new story of a planet that transitioned from bad to good because we remembered again who we are- loving, caring human beings.  Let’s keep that in mind as the balloons keep popping around us.