Let me take you on a little conversational journey my mind had with itself recently. I was attending (and presenting) at a relationship conference, enjoying the exchange of ideas. Many of them seemed quite familiar, and I found myself having quite a few of the those neat “Yeah, me too!” moments. We have them all the time, we humans, whether it’s from the Bible or Doctor Phil or Die Hard.
So there I was, having those moments…and suddenly I had to stop myself. Because I wondered just how much of this was “milk” – taking the flavor of whatever’s next to you at the moment.
One of the greatest abilities human’s have is the ability to recognize patterns. Being able to recognize that the leaves change color, it gets cold, it gets green again, and then it gets hot and easier to find food was a huge advantage to the development of agriculture. It gave us the ability to plan – and more than that, it gave us the ability to persevere. If there is some hope that the shivering cold winter will end at some point, we can hold on for one more day.
Pattern recognition is a great thing. So great, in fact, that we also often apply it to the places it doesn’t necessarily exist. If we can’t find a pattern in something, we want one to be there, so we’ll make a narrative up to apply a pattern that fits what we know. That sun-thing crosses the sky every day…I don’t really know why. Hey, maybe it’s a chariot of fire being pulled by horses! No, it’s a ball of fire circling the earth! Wait, no, it’s a ball of fire the earth circles around!
Eventually, with enough examination, we may find the right pattern. But I’m pretty sure that nobody reading this blog actually figured out that the earth goes around the sun by themselves. No, we had the narrative explained to us – often with supporting science, but maybe we just believed the teacher – and so we believe it. It’s much easier to accept someone else’s narrative than come up with our own.
When we take someone else’s narrative, it means that we know what to do. We know what to say. We know how the story ends! That’s security, that’s having a plan, and that’s comforting. Being able to find the right patterns and apply them strategically to our lives is arguably one of the most important practices we can possibly develop.
Right Song, Wrong Key
I know this, because of the dissonance I found in my own life when my own narrative ran off the rails. I was raised in the realm of the heteronormative nuclear family model, but very early on as a young parent I fell out of that kind of family model. Instead, I was a young, underemployed single father living with my four infant daughters. Suddenly none of the narratives I knew of – or that people like my grandfather suggested to me – fit my situation. Even cultural norms didn’t fit – there’s WIC to assist people in poverty, but that stands for Women, Infants, and Children – and by not fitting into any of those demographics, I didn’t get as much of a social safety net as my two best friends, single mothers in very similar situations.
Please don’t take this as complaining – I got plenty, we made it, this particular narrative has a very happy ending. I’m just trying to point out that within the society I found myself in, there wasn’t a narrative to support the life I found myself living, no matter how much I tried to force it. This was the age of Mr. Mom and the dawn of Homer Simpson; the idea of a father who was a homemaker was just not there.
So I never really quite trust the patterns when I see them. I can grudgingly stipulate that they are true and valuable for a lot of people, but I don’t have real faith in them, even when by most measures they do apply to me.
At the conference, the feeling of Yeah, me too! began to wither under the glare of all the exceptions, the unique circumstances of my particular life and relationships, the things that made me into the subject of part two of this three part series.
coming next Monday: The Special Snowflake