Perfecting the Story of Pain

Why retelling your sad story is more satisfying than a solution.

Have you ever thought about how you think? Probably not, but psychologists have a word for thinking about your thoughts and feeling your feelings. It’s called metacognition. 

If you’ve ever said, “this hurts my brain” or “that’s too painful to talk about,” you are describing something quite real. In a way, you can feel your thoughts. Some of them feel easy: like imagining words that rhyme with “hat” or listening to repetitive pop music. Sometimes thinking feels like work, though: like imagining words that rhyme with “strategy,” listening to jazz music without a time signature, or processing complex emotions. 1

The human tendency is to avoid thinking about things that hurt our brain, so we continuously search for the easiest experiences and explanations. When it comes to our memory, we give our brain a break by neatly categorizing the events and confirming what we thought all along. 

Wanting to think easy thoughts is called fluency. It’s the perfect storm of ideas and experiences that are familiar. It’s why the music you listen to as a kid always causes nostalgia and why you stop discovering new music after the age of 33.2 It’s why your favorite foods and favorite sports teams stay your favorite. It’s why people have racists views, gender bias, and the Hatfields hate the McCoys. 

Familiarity, fluency, and fact are inextricably linked. “This idea sounds familiar,” “That idea feels right,” and “that idea is good and true” spill into each other into one mental mush. The less you have to think about something, the more you agree with your opinion, but the inverse is also true–the more you analyze your thoughts, the more open you are to changing them.

Remembering Things That Didn’t Happen

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist who studies memory but in an unconventional way. She doesn’t study why people forget things; instead, she studies why people remember things that didn’t happen–false memories. 

“Many people believe that memory works like a recording device,” says Loftus. “But decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page–you can go change it, but so can other people.”

“Most people cherish their memories,” says Loftus. “But I know from my work just how much fiction is already in there.” 3

Do You Want to Get Well?

One day Jesus spoke to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and asked him a seemingly ridiculous question: “Would you like to get well?” (John 5:6) Why would Jesus ask a man who was sick for 38 years if he wants to get well?  Of course, he does, right? Maybe not. The man responded, “I don’t have anyone to help me,” but that’s not what Jesus asked.

In 20 years of pastoral leadership, I have noticed a recurring pattern with people who have been paralyzed by life: sometimes the story is more satisfying than the solution

As our brains search for the most familiar explanations to life’s events, we find comfort in feeling right and conclude it must be true. This allows us to offer straightforward explanations for complex problems and to dehumanize people as villains and us as helpless victims. Frederick Buechner said, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.”

It’s not that you haven’t spent much time thinking about it–to the contrary, you’ve spent too much time thinking about it, but in the thinking and retelling, have you come to any different conclusions?  

Think about the prayer requests and stories shared in your small group or the conversations shared around the Thanksgiving table–they are the stories that define us. Most people have perfected their story–the villains and the heroes, the build-up and the climax. It’s just easier that way.

The greatest danger you face is not what might happen to you but how you will remember, explain and retell, what happened to you. “Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling.” 4

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Footnotes

  1. Derek Thompson, Hit Makers: How to succeed in an Age of Distraction. Pg. 42-43[]
  2. New Music Discovery Stops at Age 33: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/music-discovery-stops-age-33-says-study[]
  3. The fiction of memory: Elizabeth Loftus at TEDGlobal 2013: https://blog.ted.com/tk-elizabeth-loftus-at-tedglobal-2013/[]
  4. Holiday, Ryan. Ego Is the Enemy, p. 107[]

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