Life is Like a Novel, But You’re Not The Author

The Fallacy of Writing that Next Chapter

If you convince yourself that you’re the author of your story, you may be creating a glitch in the system; your mind. You’ve heard that call to action many times, “Write your next chapter!” This statement is meant to empower us, to pick us up from the last time we were thrown from the horse. To motivate us forward and try again. That’s all positive stuff, but I feel this figure-of-speech works against us, not for us. Writing that story, or that next chapter, implies you’re the author. The one in complete control, who can create the environment, how other characters act and feel, and creative license over the plot and story arc. I prefer not to think of myself as the one writing my story. Instead, I’m the protagonist, the main character. With the belief that you possess the control of an author, you might have trouble reconciling why things are not following your written storyline.

An Incremental Journey to Pessimism

Every setback that doesn’t align with the story you wrote, exposes a defect in this perspective that you are somehow writing the story. It’s a conflict that your mind may wrestle with. “I didn’t write this into my story, so why is it happening to me?”  As the repetitions of unfortunate circumstances build and compound, one can slip into a pessimistic state. Feeling that no matter what good you have planned for yourself, you’re destined to come up short. That’s because you can’t write out all the misfortune and calamity from your story of life. Another reason why I leave this all to the author, I’ll just control how I respond to what comes my way.

I recently caught an old episode of the famous western TV show, Gunsmoke. At the center of the story was a family where the men were convinced they were born with bad luck. So, they had a convenient reason not to try anything and just expected more failure would only follow.  The episode finds this family traveling with their horse-drawn wagon near Dodge City. Unfortunately, they experience the equivalent of a modern-day flat tire, their wagon wheel separates from the axel. When U.S. Marshal Matt Dillion finds them stranded on the prairie, the father and son are both relaxing under a tree nursing their defeatist attitudes while the women comfort them. Meanwhile, no one is trying to solve the problem. Dillion investigates and learns from the adult son why there is no effort being made to fix the wagon. Once he hears about the boy’s flawed mindset, he snatches the young man up and forces him into action. On the other end of the spectrum is Matt Dillion. A character who is surrounded by adversity; outlaws who want him dead and all the challenges associated with looking after Dodge City. After watching enough episodes, I would say he is a classic Stoic. He never worries about what he can’t control, only his reaction to it. He certainly never feels sorry for himself, shirks responsibility, or avoids accountability despite the daily twist and turns of his life story. This philosophy armors him against pessimism and a woe-is-me attitude.

Woe-is-Me Shapes the Terrain Up Ahead

I never have rainbows and butterflies

Think about it. If you really take a self-inventory and discover that you’re always feeling like life has been unfair to you, that you often blame others for the catastrophes in your life, or generally have an excuse as to why you always get the proverbial “short end of the stick”, then you may be programmed with a mindset that will help you achieve more of the same. Your trained subconscious will automatically help shape the environment to ensure you receive exactly what you’ve programmed it for; misfortune. Then, “voila”, there’s the next off-the-tracks chapter of your story.

The New Year always seems like the scheduled date we try to break the cycle and write that next chapter. It’s here that the situation comes into sharp focus. As we reflect on a year of falling short of our objectives, we prepare to write that next chapter where everything will be different. It can seem like an infinite loop when we are right back in the same spot a year from now with little to no progress, or change.  So, what is happening? Where is the flaw in this “writing my story” mindset?  The short answer, “control”. 

It Boils Down to Control

I’ve come to believe that one of the keys to living a life free of unnecessary worry and angst, is coming to peace with what you can and cannot control.  As a primary practice of the Stoics, they teach that one should not waste their time upset about external factors outside of their control or influence.  Cursing the weather, feeling self-pity over your height, dwelling on someone cutting you off in traffic, or trying to make a person like you, are all examples of needlessly twisting yourself up. Additionally, these aforementioned externals are just some of the ones that are inevitably going to make appearances in your life’s story. Often, it takes the wisdom of age to finally come to terms with control.  But the good news is, we can adopt the Stoic’s philosophy now. And with conditioning, we can stop trying to control the externals and focus on how we want to respond to them. That’s something we actually do control. If we focus on our reactions to things we can’t control, we actually gain control. One’s life becomes more enjoyable, more rewarding, and certainly less stressful. 

Who Gets To Control What?

In fiction, an author has total control and creative license when writing stories.  In reality, we don’t have that luxury.  This is the flaw in the “write your next chapter” call to action. While I don’t control what the author decides to write from one chapter to the next,  I can control my response to those circumstances.  When you stop trying to wrestle that bull, life gets a lot more simple. Don’t worry, you actually have all the control you need to make for a great story. Here’s the secret. You have full creative license to develop the main character; You.  And that’s how we drive our story in the right direction.

A Different Perspective – Develop the Character

When you let go of the role of author and focus on developing your main character, the story writes itself.  Think of the author as someone who keeps type casting you. Maybe you repetitively end up in what resembles a horror flick or some ridiculous telenovela. Help the author alter the plot by building yourself in the image of the character you wish to be.  For example, I like to use Indiana Jones as a good reference for character development.  He’s resilient, intelligent, charming, adventurous, generous, audacious, and always has a good sense of humor.  No one can dispute his ability to endure hardship and adversity, and he’s always adaptive and bold when it counts.  That sounds like some great character traits to develop for yourself.  So, if till now you felt like you were the character in a sad drama, the author may continue with this genre, unless you change the main character. If you develop the character, the author will have no choice but to change direction and begin writing a novel that compliments the protagonist you developed. If you swapped pessimistic Eeyore from Winnie The Poo with Indiana Jones, that story would go in a whole different and very interesting direction. Now that we’ve got a new strategy, let’s take advantage of those catastrophes the author may toss at us.

No Straight Lines

Thank God the arc of my life’s story is not a straight line upward trajectory. That may sound like an insane position to take. But, I can’t imagine a life without twists, turns, and a little bit of calamity. Some of the best things that happened to me came on the tail end of a disaster. If my life was plotted on a progress chart, I believe it would look like an EKG readout with plenty of peaks and valleys. However, it would lean incrementally northward. A straight line without any valleys would mean that there was never any struggle or adversity to experience. Every author and screenwriter worth their salt knows that a great story includes a character who learns, transforms, and grows from the journey. That’s exactly why I don’t worry about potential calamities that the author may write into my next chapter, only my reactions to them. Obviously, I develop myself to be ready for different types of adversity, but I refuse to destroy myself in the wake of an event. That may be that defining moment that leads to a soaring peak. There is a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”       

Don’t Loiter in the Debris Field

My interpretation of the above line from Kipling’s poem is not that we should go out and celebrate disaster, or for that matter “not” celebrate the triumphs. Instead, I view it as the arrival to a state of being where you approach these external events for what they are, something outside of your control. Therefore, having the presence of mind to control your reaction when disaster finds you, just as you can when triumph does. Ultimately, this means that you’re conditioned to quickly pull yourself out of that downward spiral, to remove yourself from the debris field and recover. That recovery is key to continuing onward for that next peak. Will there be more valleys? Count on it! But, what story or adventure would be complete without an interesting plot? What makes Indiana Jones such a fascinating and lovable character is his adventurous heart and his ability to improvise, adapt and overcome. In other words, he is certified “Semper Gumby”!

Semper Gumby

A Marine’s sense of humor peeks when in the throes of misery. Some of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard come out of someone’s mouth is when accompanied by a small unit of Marines coupled with circumstances that absolutely suck. It has a lot to do with how Marines are conditioned to be comfortable and thrive in unfavorable situations. They truly do, “embrace the suck”. This of course breeds an adaptive-oriented mindset, one that can flex and adjust in the face of adversity. One of my favorite pieces of Marine Corps twisted humor is the expression “Semper Gumby.” This is a play on the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis”, Latin for always faithful. Gumby on the other hand is that lovable green clay-animated character who hit the television scene around the 1950s. Known for his flexible and bendable body, it didn’t take long before some cheeky Lance Corporal or smart-ass Drill Instructor coined the term, “Semper Gumby”, Marine-speak for “always flexible”. Since then, Marines evoke this statement to one another when things are miserable or go sideways, the perfect environment for them to adapt and thrive.

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

Within the Marine Corps‘ arsenal exists a group known as Reconnaissance Marines. They are a very versatile and deadly tool that our commanders have at their disposal. Before the Marines were part of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Recon Marines were considered the unconventional go-to solution that the Corps would throw at special missions. Inside that community of warriors exists a battle cry, “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome”. It’s no coincidence that similar and repetitive mottos permeate the overarching Marine Corps culture. It’s this very mindset and component of character development that helps drive an adventurous, audacious and triumphant story for the Marine Corps and its individual Marines. Afterward, Marines carry this spirit into their civilian lives, arming their story’s author with inspiration for writing that next chapter.

The Last Word

Don’t get me wrong, regardless of how much you self-develop, the author isn’t always going to make it easy on you.  After all, the author has to make an interesting and entertaining story, with twists and turns, and some catastrophes here and there. Just remember, shape the character, and the author will shape the corresponding environment.

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