Storylines That Define Us
Part 3 — On Self Agency
You must all be wondering, ‘How did we get from bikini bottoms to here?’ The thing is, while the range of problems from biased narratives may vary from the mildly annoying to the existential, the loss of dignity still affects everyone in different ways. The push to frame our stories for us is driven not only by nations and governments, but also by advert agencies and marketers, social media companies, and just about any influential institution.
In product marketing, the highly touted concept of an ‘ideal us’ alludes to a lack that must be filled by consumption. Materialism has been sold as a cure all to all life’s ills, as if the cure for any issue is to ‘just get more’! False advertising only makes this worse, making sure that the gullible are pressured into believing that meaning can be gotten from more possessions, more travel, more, more, MORE!!
The news’ effect is similar. While rules of varying effectiveness are usually in place to minimize partisan reporting, the major news networks have stepped around these rules so much that listening to the news is akin to watching combat sports. The same news item can be reported by different networks and have almost nothing in common. This is often done to drive a reaction, usually outrage at those with other viewpoints. In the US for example, Fox News which has a highly conservative audience, have pushed against Covid vaccines to the point that conservatives are one of the least vaccinated group in the US. The opposite can occasionally be seen from CNN which (similarly but not equally) is prone to some exaggeration of the conservative side of things.
Social media does it one step better, as it allows for the presentation of a highly curated online self which, depending on how savvy one’s digital skills are, can showcase an image that has no bearing on one’s actual personality, character, or life. To feed these vicarious profiles, social media companies have designed their applications to be as addictive and as attention consuming as possible. Thus, their users are hooked on seemingly free applications while giving up their time, personal data, and alternate opportunities. In doing this, they unwittingly exchange their capacity to create real-life stories to partake virtual ones, trading their sober realities for the bliss of someone else’s dreamworld.
The point is, the governments, news agencies, advertisers, social media companies et al all work directly or subtly to frame the storylines by which we define our lives, just to drive their own agendas. Thus, with all these story spinners around us, how do we know what is true or not, how do we keep our agency in a world that is driving us all to conform, or rather unconsciously, to perform?
My proposed first step towards self-agency starts with “Self-Understanding”, by applying the simplest form of power, i.e., knowledge. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate’. Viewing democracy not only as a form of government, but also as a way of life anticipates that with more knowledge, potentially anyone can make informed decisions. The opposite of this is the crux of all power-seeking storylines, as their creators often need people to be less informed or simply misinformed, for easier manipulation.
Knowledge comes with understanding oneself: abilities, limitations, biases etc. With this we can look to the roles we play at work, home, in social groups etc. This quest for self-understanding is not a destination, but a journey to gain that rarest of things — a truly open mind. As we do this, we must continually assess ourselves with “You are here” questions, such as:
- Does this job bring me happiness or simply vanity metrics like heaps of money, and is that okay?
- Do I understand the context of the content I absorb, e.g., news, IG, etc?
- Do I apply a healthy skepticism to ‘trust-but verify’ any new information?
Note that on this path, it might be jarring to discover the negative sides of ourselves, but instead of getting defensive, we could simply accept our imperfections and work towards change. And yes, in case you were wondering, yes, sometimes you are the villain. After all, we’re all the villain at some point, but no one must stay that way. Learn, unlearn, adapt, grow, etc.
A suggested next step is “Self-Regulation”, i.e., to reframe our circumstances to better manage our emotions during sad times. The loss of control during emotionally low or uncertain periods makes us more susceptible to manipulation as we reach for comforting but ultimately untrue storylines. One form of this is in the practice of ‘cognitive reappraisal’ which teaches one to reappraise negative feelings and thoughts to create a more balanced interpretation of one’s situation. This does not imply only thinking happy thoughts but being able to redefine the situation in both positive and negative ones, without unduly focusing on the negative. Again, do not apply the ‘fake it till you make it’, ‘aspire to perspire’ and other unrelenting positivity-only BS mental models that encourage a denial of the negative. Being open and vulnerable about the negatives in our lives yet refusing to be defined by them is key to building true emotional resilience.
Yet another step is “Self-Application”, i.e., being intentional about our lives. As we become less pliable to manipulative storylines, we must make a conscious effort to own and thus, write our own stories. By being more curious and better understanding the big picture of life with its fleeting and fragile nature, we learn to be intentional with how we chose to spend our time, attention, and other resources without worrying madly about the past or future. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says, ‘the best way to have a happy future is to keep making wise choices in the present that should lead us to a better future’.
It is also very useful to learn about how power systems operate, from sources like Machiavelli’s The Prince, or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This is done to better understand power-propaganda and how we may be affected, after all as Udaylal Pai’s book title goes, ‘You don’t eat a lion doesn’t mean a lion won’t eat you’. Understanding how power systems work also creates the responsibility on us to call out unjust narratives when we see them. However, speaking truth to power always hurts, just ask Mandela, Rosa Parks and other challengers. As the late John Lewis aptly put it, ‘Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get good trouble, necessary trouble’.
Now that I’m out of additional steps, do note these are just my thoughts. I am neither a self-help guru nor someone imbued with the wisdom of the ancient monks. These are just some steps I have taken in my own life and thought to share. Hope they can help in some way.
P.S.: Going back to the Norwegian team, just before I finished editing this write-up, the IHF announced that the rules had finally been adjusted to allow women wear similar outfits to the men’s team, indicating that the good trouble had been successful this time. Hopefully the next time such a scenario occurs, the right thing will be done quickly and without a fuss, simply because that is the right thing to do. And if it doesn’t, hopefully some other challengers would step up to confront the underlying narrative and drive for a more equitable society.
Who knows, that person might just be YOU.
 An analogy to the You are here section of maps of a large area (e.g., a mall) that help to fix your location.