The Danger of a Single Story

In 2005 (, writer Chimamanda Adichie spoke powerfully about the danger of having a single story: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

On a political and social level, the ramifications of her insight are obvious: if we could learn to resist forming single stories of cultures, belief-systems and even individuals, we would be taking enormous strides towards understanding and accepting other people. We would be able to love them more humbly, and respect them more deeply; world peace would be far more likely. Similarly, if marginalised and disempowered groups could fashion the means to tell stories about themselves that shaped their identities as more influential and dignified, stories that would make them less complicit in their own subjugation, it would become more difficult to keep people suppressed. Stories are undoubtedly powerful.

But I want to talk about the ramifications of this on a much more personal level. I want to talk about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In very profound and tangible ways, we become products of our own internal narratives.

In life, we see what we look for. We tend to look for stories that validate what we already believe. That is why, as far we can tell, people conform to the stereotypes we hold of them; we subconsciously look for stories that confirm what we suspect. Single stories always reduce and dehumanise, and we all too often look only for single stories.

But the same holds true for ourselves. In a strange way, we become stereotypes of ourselves in our minds. When we are (usually negatively) fixated on a particular aspect of our character, we subconsciously look for stories that validate the stereotype, and so we become to ourselves an ‘angry’ person or an ‘impatient’ person – a powerless victim of one sort or another..

Single stories are always dangerous, though. The problem is that our actions are a response to the narratives we tell ourselves, and single stories always reduce and diminish. Our single stories about ourselves dehumanise us. And consequently we act in ways that degrade ourselves. We take these actions as proof of the validity of our self-perception, and the cycle is perpetuated.

My guess is that the lingering pain from your deepest hurt is more the result of the dominance of a single, reductionist self-narrative, rather than merely a consequence of the circumstances that led to that hurt.

A few years ago, when my depression almost broke me, I took a decision to rewrite some of my self-narrative. I was inspired by a passage from my favourite writer, Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symmetries:

“I can’t go back into the past and change it, but I have noticed that the future changes the past. What I call the past is my memory of it and my memory is conditioned by who I am now. Who I will be. The only way for me to handle what is happening is to move myself forward into someone who has handled it. As yet that person does not exist. She has not those resources. I will have to make her as Jewish legend tells how God made the first man: by moulding a piece of dirt and breathing life into it. The dirt I have in plenty. The life I will have to draw out of lungs unused to deep breathing.” (Jeanette Winterson: Gut Symmetries, Granta Books, 1997, pg 45)

I wrote a series of eight core values for myself, and made a conscious and deliberate decision to find ways to write them into my story as I experience it on a daily basis. I look for opportunities to live stories of them so that when I reflect on the chronicles of my life and my contribution to humanity, I become more than merely the sum of my many failures.

Over the next few weeks I will explore those core values. Until then, I urge you to reflect on this: what stories are you telling yourself about who you are? In what ways are those stories incomplete? Where are they prejudicial? To what are they blind? How will you start rewriting yourself? I can assure you that reflecting on this will be painful. But then everything worthwhile in life is won through tears and sacrifice. I can also assure you that the outcome more than compensates for the pain of the terrible introspection the journey demands. Take it from a man who, despite being deeply flawed, has learned to love himself anyway.

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