A few days ago, I saw Spike Jonze’s movie Her, about a man who falls in love with his smartphone (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It’s interesting and strange for a number of reasons—but one particular line has stuck with me since I first watched it. One particular line really got me thinking.
See, the benefit of having a thought-forming, almost-human persona like the title character is that she can comment on humanity from a completely innocent and objective viewpoint. She can point out our faults, laugh at our anxieties, notice our quirks.
So I was more than struck when I heard the line: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
And boom. There it is. All at once. In the most perfectly summed up and succinct way, she explained what I’ve been spending 600-word essays trying to say. The past is just a story we tell ourselves.
We rehash stories over and over again. We stay up in bed with anxiety over how we handled that situation. We nostalgically long for an easier, simpler time. We cling on to memories that may or may not have really happened the way we remembered them. And either way—they no longer exist.
I’m beginning to think I’m not the only one stuck in the 90s (but thank god for Portland). The truth is we’re all stuck in another era at all times. There’s just no way around it. We’re constantly defining ourselves through our very biased stories about our past. Two thousand things may have happened yesterday, but we’re particularly remembering just one instance where we failed. Instead of focusing on all the times we rocked house, we’re reminding ourselves that we’re a failure. And today, we’re defining ourselves as a failure.
Wait, what?! We’re hand-picking a very particular past just to construct a less than desirable future? That seems like a really good way to self-destruct.
What if we decided to change the narrative a little bit? What if we were able to take another glance at that break-up and not see it as us being too needy, but instead see it as our partner just needing independence at this time in his or her life? That probably has very little to do with us. That probably doesn’t mean we need to define ourselves as needy now. It was just a story we started telling ourselves about how it went down.
We’re really unreliable witnesses. We’re not good at remembering the way things truly happened. Because we’re too close to the action. We’ve always got a lens on. We’ve always got an agenda. And we’re always stringing together the memories based on what we choose to see.
When we change the story of our past, we can change the story of our future. We free ourselves from the punishment of past failures or mistakes or mess-ups. We give ourselves a break. Maybe we weren’t perfect in that moment. But we were growing and expanding and learning. And maybe our mom or our friend or our boss wasn’t perfect either. Maybe they really hurt us in some way. But they were just learning too. That’s what life’s all about.
And maybe we can just remember it as people trying to figure shit out. Not saying that we’re defined by what happened or what we were. Because a lot has changed since then. That was moments ago. And we’re totally new now.
So let’s cut them some slack for not being perfect. Let’s cut ourselves some more. We’re all just trying to figure it out. And, sure, we’ll screw up along the way. No one’s perfect.
But we don’t have to replay the old memory reel again and again. We don’t have to quit playing baseball because of that one time we struck out. We don’t have to feel like we’re ugly because of one thing someone said. It’s just a story we tell ourselves. Our perspective is just a story.
And we can change the story any time we please. Besides, I’ve always pegged you as more of the adventure tale type.
And you’ve got an exhilarating and successful adventure still ahead of you.