Life is a flow, we mark certain events out from the flow as a beginning or an ending in our lives and, to a certain degree, rightfully so. The birth of a child, enrolling in college, graduating, getting married, the death of a parent, and so one. All these events serve as markers and we often build stories around them. Our story minds make sense of life by cutting the flow of events into sequences with beginning’s and endings, and with an arc in the middle that often includes drama, tension, conflict, humor, etc. These are the ingredients in good storytelling and our minds love drama, mystery, suspense and even terror. But sometime, we put ourselves at the mercy of our storied lives.
We are pattern detectors and we use our story mind to describe perceived patterns in life. Often, we punctuate a sequence of events and then generalize the story as applicable to our lives as a whole using what linguists call “universal quantifiers“ – words like “always,“ “never,“ etc. More often than not, these generalized patterns are self defeating. Perhaps you have heard someone say, or you have said, “this always happens to me.“ That opening word, “this,“ encapsulates a pattern: a story in our minds with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In other words, we have punctuated the sequence of events in our lives in a certain way. This punctuation takes the flow of our lives, marks out a perceived “sequence,” and we then apply the sequence, or its effect, to our life as a whole. It may have some validity. But it is, at best, an occasional truth, and certainly not the whole picture. Life goes on. Once we have punctuated a sequence and generalize it, we run our lives as if it is true. In other words, we turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How we punctuate a sequence of events makes all the difference in the meaning we make out it. Linguistically, punctuation helps the reader to make sense of a string of words when read on the page, telling the reader what group of words go together, how groups of words relate to on another, when to pause, and when one sentence or idea ends and another one begins. It is an incredibly helpful way to convey meaning as intended. Consider the string of words: A woman without her man is nothing. Notice how punctuation changes the meaning dramatically:
Version 1: A woman, without her man, is nothing.
Version 2: A woman, without her, man is nothing.
In life, one of the easiest ways to change our story is to change how and what we punctuate, especially beginnings and endings. For instance, if someone says, “Every time I get ahead, something happens and life knocks me down,“ she has encapsulated a sequence creating a story that begins with “getting ahead” and ends with being “knocked down.” Of course, this is a generalization based on perception, evaluation and the meaning the person attaches to experiences. And it is unlikely to be true of every incident that could be identified as “getting ahead.”
Even more interesting, it ends with being “knocked down.” For this sequence to be true at all, it also must be true that whenever she gets “knocked down,” she also manages to get going and “get ahead” again. Cognitive scientist have found that the way we end a story retroactively colors the experience. Ending the story with being “knocked down” casts a pale over the whole effort whereas ending with “getting ahead” lightens and lifts the spirit.
Changing how we punctuate life is one of the most powerful tools we have to manage our experience in life. It’s easy to do and can make a huge difference in your outlook, your behavior and your results. Try it yourself: Think of a story you tell, especially about a pattern that you say “always” happens or is in the form “every time….” Notice how the story ends. If it ends negatively, consider repunctuating, using the prior negative ending as the beginning, and the events or actions that follow from there that lead to a positive experience as the ending. Then restate the sequence, "every time (the negative event occurs), I get to (the positive event)." Notice the differences in your experience of the two versions.
© Nick LeForce
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