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Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
First Thanksgiving in America

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S., possibly the most important secular holiday of the year. On this day, football is played, families come together and fight, vast quantities of turkeys are consumed, and stories are told. Stories of family and football, of course, but also a particular story, the story of the United States in its infancy, when beleaguered pilgrims came to American shores fleeing religious persecution. Pilgrims who were ill-prepared for the rigors of a new and harsh land, but who, with the help of their Indian neighbors, managed to flourish here.

This story tells a very specific and flattering part of the history of early America. It leaves out the earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in the Virginia colonies — those colonies being guided by commercial gain not religious enlightenment — and the history of slavery and armed conflict with America’s indigenous population.

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But historical accuracy is not the standard that we measure the Thanksgiving story against. It is the feeling of Thanksgiving, the kind of attitude about ourselves, our families, and our nation, that is important. The Thanksgiving story as we tell it describes us as a country founded in peace and goodwill — not in theft, slavery, and genocide. It’s the story of how we want to see ourselves and our past — and, sometimes, it’s the kind of story that inspires the best in us, instead of justifying the worst.

Each of us tells ourselves stories about ourselves and our lives, sometimes to inspire ourselves to great heights, and other times to justify our failures. This Thanksgiving, instead of thinking only about what I’m thankful for (though that’s important, too), I wanted to think about the kinds of stories I’ve told myself, or about myself, over the past year.

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I’ve talked before about how stories are powerful ways of encapsulating and passing on information — but they do more than that. Stories give shape to and direct emotion, passion, and behavior. They help us to grapple with experience and extract meaning from it. So, for instance, when my step-children’s father started behaving terribly towards his children, for no clear reason we could make out, my partner and I told the story to each other over and over in some attempt both to understand and to decide how to respond.

The stories we tell ourselves can motivate us to excel or to try something new. For years, I have told myself a story of academic life and of myself in it. In the gap between the story I imagined and the life I led lay all the steps I needed to take to make the story real, and it is that which has kept me motivated at a job that can be, at times, overwhelming. Part of that story was about my unique grasp of Internet technology as an instructional tool, which has motivated me to include blogging and online research in the design of my classes — earning me a great deal of attention from my colleagues and my department.

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But stories can also be deceptive, causing us to fall short of our goals. I have always intended to write for an audience outside of academia, but for years I have told myself that I had to pay my dues as an educator and a researcher before I could take up writing professionally. This year, I realized that it was not my academic situation, nor my economic situation, that was preventing me from becoming a writer — that it was in fact the story I was telling myself. So I stopped telling myself that story, and started telling myself the story where I’m a writer — and within months had begun writing at lifehack, as well as sending out submissions to several magazines.

These are only a few examples; I’m sure we tell ourselves dozens of stories about ourselves as lovers and partners, parents and sons or daughters, employees or employers, artists and amateurs. Often when we worry or back away from challenges, it is because in the stories we tell ourselves we are not good enough to deal with them, or just not the kind of person that deals with them. “I’m no hero,” we tell ourselves, and shy away from situations that demand heroism of us. Other times we charge headlong into risky situations because in our stories, we can and do handle them — in our stories, there is no risk.

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I wonder how easy it is to change our stories? It occurs to me that traditional psychoanalysis and therapy is based on telling your stories to a trained listener, who gently guides you through the process of developing new stories about yourself. Perhaps for the most deeply-held stories, professional intervention is needed, but what about the casual stories, the little tales of personal imperfection and unfulfillable desire that subtly shape our daily lives?

I think we can re-tell these stories — we humans are innately creative and creating new stories comes naturally to us. The catch is that to revise the stories of our lives means closely examining — proofreading, if you will — the stories we already tell ourselves, and that kind of self-examination is hard to come by. But as we face a long weekend committed to the telling of stories — both national and familial — maybe we can commit ourselves to examining at least some of our personal stories and considering how we might tell better ones.

That would be something to be thankful for, indeed!

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Last Updated on November 18, 2020

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

  1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
  2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
  3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
  4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
  5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
  6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
  7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
  8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
  9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
  10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
  11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
  12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
  13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
  14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
  15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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