Lesson # 4: There is a distinction between facts and the story I make about them
The fact is my husband died of a sudden heart attack that night. The doctor told me that his arteries were ninety-nine percent blocked. The medical team did what they could to save him, but he was already brain dead when I reached the hospital. A few hours later, he was pronounced dead.
The story I made was that he left me against his promise to never leave me. That I was stupid for not knowing the symptoms of a heart attack and to find the shortest way to reach the hospital ER. It was not fair for him to die when there were mean, horrible, older people who were still alive. There must be something that the doctor missed because I had seen how people survive a heart attack and heart surgery with the modern technology in this supposedly developed country. God must have made a mistake. Or God did it on purpose to punish me for not being a good enough wife. I was left to fend for myself and my daughter. We were doomed forever.
These are facts: I had not learned how to use a checkbook when he died. I had never put gas in my car. I had never used the ATM. I had never used a computer since I came to the US. I didn’t always understand 100% of what was written in official documents sent by the insurance companies, lawyers, hospital, banks, and his former employers for me to review and then sign. I froze when someone presented a document. It took me a long time to compose myself so I could sign it. I was so nervous that somehow I couldn’t (still can’t) duplicate my signature prior to his death.
The story I made was “I am helpless. I am not knowledgeable enough. If I make a mistake with any of these documents I might suffer greatly and I won’t be able to handle the consequences. I don’t know much about anything to survive by myself. All of these responsibilities are way too hard for me. I need someone (preferably my husband) to make it all better for me or I will not survive.”
Can you imagine the kind of person I would be if I said to myself “this is my story and I am sticking with it?” How would I show up in my life? How would I show up in yours?
It is so easy to get wrapped up in our story especially after we repeat it so many times in our head. It becomes our subconscious belief. After a while, we don’t know the difference between the fact and the story anymore. They are enmeshed now. This is why practicing mindfulness is so beneficial. If we simply believe our story without examining it mindfully and courageously, we run the risk of feeling bad about ourselves, feeling depressed, or becoming anxious, angry, and resentful longer than necessary. We all know how feeling that way impacts our behavior. Depending on how people respond to our behavior, we will either create similar beliefs (which only strengthens the original) or we may begin to reevaluate our belief (which will potentially change our feeling and subsequent behavior).
When we practice mindfulness, we don’t rely on other people’s response. We learn to rely on our own observation of how we feel and whether we like the results of our behavior. We set a clear intention of what we want to create in our experience. So we intentionally pause to pay attention to our story, acknowledge it without shame, evaluate it non-judgmentally, and then choose a compassionate, kind, and helpful story that reflects our humanity and divinity at the same time.
The act of examining our story is an ongoing, conscious practice. We get better at it, but we are not immune to making up stories. We will simply catch ourselves sooner. We will suffer much less. And then we are free to create a new story that is loving and compassionate toward ourselves.