The Stories We Tell Ourselves

by : Rabbi Michael Ozair

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that on Passover night we are bringing our entire life stories to the Seder table to be freed. What exactly does this mean? To begin with, we are by nature, storytellers. Whether we are aware of it or not, we live in a world of stories. Stories that we tell our family, friends, coworkers, and clients. Stories we share over the phone, e-mail, in our journals and the stories that are constantly playing themselves out in our heads. Stories about what's happening to those we love, stories about those we despise, stories that inspire the spirit, and stories that instill fear.

The sum and total of our life is that, from our birth until our death, we are walking stories, here upon the earth. Yet on Passover, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that needs to be looked at and freed. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves have great power over us. Depending on how they are told, our life stories can either enlighten or mislead, inspire or discourage.

A good exercise for this Passover is to become more aware of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our past. What are the underlying themes of our stories?

Victory? Betrayal? Struggle? Victimization? Each of us has had key events in our pasts, whether it be from our childhood, or more recent episodes of hurt and loss, where a part of us draws a reactionary conclusion about our life stories -- even when the conclusions are terribly incorrect. Many perpetuate these stories and our immature understandings of them often make a further mess of our lives in the process - unless a reminder comes to wake us up and reorient our perspective. Our Hebrew Sages teach that Passover is such a reminder.

Passover is a reminder that we need not live in our Egypts forever. There is a G-d, a Higher Power, that has an invested interest in our Liberation. Our job comes in our willingness to understand, heal and ultimately elevate the stories we hold onto that are no longer working for us. After all, it does clearly state in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see themselves, as if they themselves left Egypt". What are we doing to leave THIS year?

We can simply begin by looking at our life stories and revising parts of the script. Remember, it's not what happened to us that's important but what we make of those events.

The following suggestions are designed to help us tell our stories well this year:

Become a Sympathetic Narrator

When telling your story about yourself, to yourself, become a sympathetic narrator.

In literature, a sympathetic narrator is one who takes the side of the story's protagonist or main character. For example, when the Torah introduces the life of King David, it includes his shortcomings, yet does not let it take away from his greatness. Similarly, we need to admit mistakes yet not obsess over them. A sympathetic narrator casts daily failures as learning experiences, painful yet helpful steps on the way to success.

Choose What You Want to Emphasize

Any honest reporter will tell you that all stories have a slant. It's not that reporters try to mislead, it's just that in choosing what to cover, some things are always left out or minimized in order to create a perspective. And that's OK. Likewise, in our own stories of loss or pain, deciding what to highlight can bring about the difference between lingering bitterness and a sense of closure.

Seek the Higher Purpose

There is a core spiritual principle that our lives are divinely designed for each one of us to get exactly what we need to support our own soul’s unique evolutionary process. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, “You are exactly where you need to be", which implies that we should not get too caught up in our internal struggles against what is, or what was, which will only lead to more pain and suffering. According to this spiritual belief, nothing in our world occurs by accident and there are no coincidences, only synchronicity. When reframing our life stories, attempt to see the “Hand of G-d" or the pattern of events that have led us to this moment. These patterns of connectedness or synchronicity are the magical language of the Divine in our lives. When rewriting our stories, seek to see beyond the circumstances and instead at the Divine Order of the unique paths that have chosen us.

As for the Life Story that still plays itself out today:

Work on the 20 Percent

While it is not commonly known, according to the Midrash, when Moses left Egypt, only 20 percent of the nation of Israel left with him. The other 80 percent remained behind, and did not succeed in taking the risk of leaving an imprisonment that was all too familiar to them. An interesting correlation is found in the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups where the statistic is the same. It is known that only 20 percent of those in recovery will remain sober, the other 80 percent will inevitably relapse into old behavior as statistics have shown, because the life of addiction, no matter how painful and dark, is at least familiar.

Consequently, when we say we want to change our life stories, the important thing to remember is not whether we feel 100 percent confident and ready. The more realistic question to ask ourselves today is whether we still have a least 20 percent of ourselves that is strong enough to take the steps, and if we can agree to work on that 20 percent that is committed and willing. Passover asks us to at least look for that part, to find that part, and to work on that part, for it is there that we might find the secret of finding the life we want and deserve to live.

May this Passover be for all of us, the benchmark in time when we begin retelling our stories, but perhaps this time, in a slightly different way. May G-d release us this Passover from our pasts that we may be delivered to our future.

New Beginnings,

Rabbi Michael Ozair

Practical Exercise:

Write out three stories from any period of your life (no more than a page each) of something you did well, some problem you solved, and tell (yourself) how you did it.