Whose Story is It Anyway?
written by Tirzah McPherson, Learning Journeys Facilitator & Coach
I was born at the cusp of the 1980’s. As a child, I had a collection of “Read to Me” cassette tapes by Disney that would read my tiny library of books out loud. Everyday pig-tailed Tirzah would carry around my prized possession a clunky portable Cassio tape deck purchased at the long-gone Radio Shack on Nicollet Avenue in the Twin Cities. My sturdy brown arms clutched it to my small chest protecting it along with my bag of treasures; the cassette tapes and books that would transport me to the land of Fairy Tales. I would find my corner, make my nest and hunker down for hours carefully placing each cassette inside the tape deck and picking out my books. I was gleeful as the first words of each book rang out, “This is the story of Peter Pan you can read along with me in your book! You will know it is time to turn the page when you hear the bell chime like this – ding!” I would sit, for hours, listening and turning pages until pried from that spot for some sort of sustenance at the dinner table. No one could tell me that I wasn’t reading.
Fast forward three decades and I found myself hunkered in another corner turning life’s pages and listening to stories that I’d long outgrown pass through my mind.
I never intended to become a bureaucrat. It was not an aspiration I held when taking my first job with the public schools. But here I was at the end of my government career in 2019 realizing that is what I had become. But how? To understand I had to harken back to my early years and realize a few things and one is that I am a creature of comfort, a nest maker. And when it came to a profession, I’d been searching for nesting materials. Those materials were recognition, praise, a seeming sort of impact and service. Government work supplied those for a time but like any relationship the workplace in which I found myself began to shape me. And so decades later I was turning the pages of my life, but I was neither the author nor even the reader of my own story. I had found a tape and for comfort had agreed to play my part in this pre-recording of life. The only problem was I needed sustenance and this story wasn’t giving me any.
To wake up and find one’s self in the middle of a story, not of their own design is a jarring revelation but I suspect that I’m not alone. How many of us substitute a societal story for our life because it eases the discomfort of our souls’ search for belonging? You see I had mixed up fit for belonging and when I arrived on the doorstep of government employment, I was told that I could fit if I followed the rules. If I dressed a certain way, behaved a certain way and modified my brilliance then I could stay. My longing for belonging was so great and the search was so uncomfortable that I chose my spot and began to build my nest. I worked hard at making this story fit. But after a while even those elements that originally felt closest to me, ‘service in humility’ felt like the corners of my childhood books sharp and pointy poking into my ribs the closer and tighter, I held them.
Looking back, I wonder how I could hold so tightly to something that fit so poorly. How could I spend years bending myself like a pretzel to ‘make it work?’ It’s simple really – identity and reinforcement. Being in government became my identity. I introduced myself to new sectors of my world by it. I arranged my creativity around it. I poured into this characterization of myself expecting it to pay me back with money and stability and meaning and mattering. I was praised for a long time for this choice of story. Management would stroke my ego as long as I fell in line, my family understood the work I did and so could praise it, promote it and brag about it, society approved so I could feel proud. And I stayed. I stayed while my legs went numb, listening to the stories that were supposed to be mine. I stayed adopting causes that weren’t my own, dimming my intuitive creativity and accepting my role as a cog in a wheel. I stayed, turning life’s pages year after year repeating the same worn-out tales of predictable non-adventure.
In 2018 coaching entered my life and I paused my recording for a conversation with myself. Is this your story? Is this the story that you want? What is it that you need? What is your actual story instead of the story you’ve just told yourself is yours because you want so desperately to belong somewhere? Finally, the tape had stopped and there was enough silence that the questions could not be ignored. And these questions, well they were new, fresh and compelling enough that they became more attractive than the safety of my stale stories. And so, I left my corner and began a journey of discovery. Leaving was hard and the discovery may be harder but my corner is no longer a comfort so I will press on. Narrative – I’m coming for you.