Two friends recently received DNA test results that floored them: the stories they’d lived with for fifty-plus years were lies. Their grief increased when they learned everyone else in the family had known all along and kept the secret from them. Both have difficulty now trusting friends and family. What else might they be hiding?
What I shared with both friends is that they are not their stories. I and others love them for who they are: kind, witty, generous, creative, easygoing, intelligent. They would express these traits no matter where or to whom they were born.
I speak from experience. You see, I gave up a child for adoption in 1975, and she found me in 2018, through a cousin who’d had DNA testing. When we had our first encounter via FaceTime just before Mother’s Day, what struck me like a cannonball in the chest was that she was exactly how she would have been had I kept her myself. Yes, she looked like my mother (who died in 1994) and me, but what startled me most were her voice timbre…her sense of humor…her intelligence…her mannerisms…even the way she sang and danced with her children. Regardless of the back story, she was just her beautiful self.
Right after the conversation, I felt horror: I wouldn’t have needed to give her up! Rage at the lies told us and grief for the lost years nearly overwhelmed me. Love proved stronger than both grief and pride, thankfully, and now our whole family enjoys her presence.
Love won when it dawned on me we are not our stories—no matter how long we’ve believed in and cherished them. We’re born into our stories, and they’re heavily edited ones at that. Caregivers tell tales they believe are in our best interest. While time may prove those stories to have been more for their own interests doesn’t matter; people do their best at any given moment. Since most humans operate out of fear, however, it’s no wonder we rarely get the truth.
And that’s my point: no story is “true,” as in objective truth. Our vision and hearing are selective. “Truth” derives solely from our perceptions, which are filtered through our personal priority lens. Priorities change, and suddenly we discover the time for confessing has passed. We cross our fingers and hope to die with the secret unspoken.
Stories have this nasty habit of reincarnating, though. Just when we think it’s safe to look in that closet, out tumbles a skeleton, and the coverups restart. DNA testing has caused a sharp rise in de-closeted skeletons, has it not?
If it weren’t for skeletons, we’d have far fewer stories. As audience, we always know more than the poor protagonist: If it’s a quest, we know the hero will find their Grail. If it’s a mystery, we know someone will be found guilty of the crime. But when it’s non-genre, we don’t quite know what’s going to happen. We identify with the protagonist and hope for a happy ending.
What, then, is the difference between “real life” and stories about “real life”? Nothing. Nothing at all. We think there’s a difference, but it’s just that in one we’re the audience, and in the other, a character.
We enter life mid-narrative, our role already decided. The original script has been altered beyond recognition, yet everyone keeps playing their part, however unsuitable. We’re unaware we can change roles at any time; we don’t have to follow the script. We can scrap it altogether and start fresh.
After my daughter found me, I grieved for a time. Losing stories can feel exactly like losing a precious human or pet. Then, determined to suffer no more, I gave thanks for every single past experience and person I’d blamed for my nearly half-century of suffering. Not forgiveness: gratitude. There is nothing to forgive if everyone is, as I believe, doing the best they can. They’ve got their burden of untrue stories, too. Forgiving implies that my perception of events is more true than others’. It’s not. I don’t need apologies, nor do I extend them anymore. It’s simply not necessary.
Gratitude: that’s the key. After mentally thanking every event and person for the gift they’d given, I discovered I loved myself. For the first time in sixty-odd years, I love myself! Talk about miracles… but if I hadn’t had those experiences… if I hadn’t believed the stories… I would not be the person I am today. And I love me! A strange paradox: though we are not our stories, our stories act as a filter of our reality. We then make decisions based solely on what comes through that filter.
What we don’t realize is that no two filters are alike; no two humans view events in exactly the same way. Embracing this truth fosters compassion, and compassion leads to gratitude. I’ve chosen to view everything that comes my way as a gift—the best ones often arrive in shit-brown wrapping paper, BTW—and I give thanks for it. It not only brings me daily contentment, it obviates the need to retread the path of suffering.
Stay in your painful story if you choose. You’ll have a lot of company there, for we’ve long been told that suffering is mandatory, and life is hard and unfair. Those are lies, too. I no longer believe them for one second. Grieve your loss, yes; but know that suffering—the clinging to pain long past its usefulness—is optional.
We’ve all been lied to. We’ve all experienced betrayal. But if we move our mind’s eye, we will also see we had love, sunny days, and starry starry nights. When you filter life through gratitude instead of old stories, you’ll be astounded. Everything you ever needed or wanted sits there, just waiting for you to notice. Notice. Give thanks. Then go ahead—open your Present.
This article will appear in the Milwaukie-based arts and culture magazine 99E in 2020.