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take away your stories, who are you?

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The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells us that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” And so we tell stories–to ourselves and to others. Someone said that we live storied lives. A resume is a story tailored to an application, a self-introduction differs according to the occasion and audience; we tell one thing to a stranger, another to a therapist (or lover), and yet another to our children.

Stories define who we are, they change over time, some forgotten, others told again and again, polished, embellished, and re-written. Many remain buried in our subconscious forever, some to be disturbed by life’s dramatic unfolding. Stories can be individual and collective, real and imagined–more often a messy blend. Families have them (often as skeletons), as do tribes, trades, generations, professions, also groups formed along such lines as ethnicity, gender, interests, religion, and language. Without stories, who are you?

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) writes:

I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a graveside
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots

a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.

source: “Ich liebe meines Wesens Dunkelstunden” in: Rilke, R.M. Stundenbuch. Rilke’s book of hours: love poems to god. (1966). Translated by A. Barrows & J. Macy. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 51. image:


5 responses »

  1. that’s what i love about life..people’s fascinating stories

  2. I’ve been reading, catching up on your insightful posts below… Been dealing with my own depression since starting this job (well, it’s always been there, it’s just the present discomfort makes it so obvious and unavoidable now!). Anyway… I love this question… It is the BEST question, truly. And one that is my entire spiritual practice right now.

  3. I find I have two answers to this question! They seem to contradict, I suspect there may be truth in both!

    My first says – our stories are what make us rich, diverse, interesting, help us relate, find common ground and to make sense of the circumstances we find ourselves in. They are the way we express our uniqueness and make us a vital thread in the weaving of the tapestry of the world… only we can contribute that particular colour and texture…
    A line from Rumi comes to mind…

    I can’t stop pointing to the beauty. Every moment and place says, “Put this design in your carpet!”

    My second says – our stories are a defence or a protection, fabrications of the mind which cover our essential self… when they drop away we are left with our true nature, which is the same for all…
    The wonderful poem by Li Po comes to mind…

    The birds have vanished into the sky, and now the last cloud drains away.
    We sit together, the mountain and me,
    Until only the mountain remains.

  4. Yes, Fiona! We’re filled with/defined by stories and walk through life accordingly. In rare moments we glimpse at the delusionary nature of stories and realize that we’re “just this.”


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