He shot first and asked questions later. He found out later it was a diplomatic party, and one of the men he killed was an important French ambassador. Washington had made a big mistake. The two major military powers of that time ended their cold war and entered a hot war.
Imagine, for the moment, that you were Washington, and you made that mistake. What would you tell yourself about it? How would the mistake fit into the overall pattern of your life?
In other words: What kind of story do you live in? Where do you think you come from and where do you think you’re going?
You live by a story. Have you ever thought of it that way? Each of us has a story, and we are the main character in that story. If I interviewed you for a couple of weeks, I could probably piece together a coherent story that you live by even if you’ve never really thought about it yourself. It’s your life story and it is the meaning of your life.
For example, one story Washington could have told himself was: “I am destined for failure.” His father died young, his mother was a nag. Compared to his contemporaries, he was poor. Killing the French ambassador could have been a final straw. He might have concluded that he wasn’t cut out for military work and given up, climbed inside a bottle and we might never have heard of him.
That’s one story. That’s one context within which he could have lived his life. And do you see that the story leads to certain feelings and certain actions consistent with the story?
Here’s another possibility: He could have thought he was destined to make his mark in the world, and that his mistake was the most important lesson he was ever to learn. “Divine Providence,” he could have told himself, “is preparing me for a great task. I must learn all I can from this mistake for it may affect the future of the world.”
Do you think he would feel differently about the circumstances of his life with this story? Of course he would. Same circumstances, different story. But the heroic story would make him learn important military lessons from his mistake and it would help him persist and endure hardships that would collapse a weaker person. The story would give him strength.
Judging by the letters he wrote home, the story he lived by was a lot more like this second one than the first one. And because he lived by that more inspiring story, he persisted and he learned and he did make a difference.
Man of La Mancha, a musical made in 1972, is based on the story Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It’s an entertaining story, but it’s also profound.
Don Quixote sees the world as a quest, as an adventure, and he sees a poor kitchen maid as a lady of unsurpassed beauty and chastity. He dreams the impossible dream, he fights the unbeatable foe, he looks at life as a challenge to do good in the face of evil and make the world a better place. He wants to dedicate his victories to the kitchen maid, his Lady.
She is bitter about life, full of anger.
“Why do you do these things?” she asks him.
She bursts out in frustration, “It’s ridiculous, the things you do!”
He answers simply, “I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold.”
“The world’s a dung heap,” she says, “and we are maggots that crawl on it.”
Two different stories, same objective reality. Yet one lives in a life of nobility and beauty and adventure, and the other lives in filth and misery and hatred.
What kind of story do you live? Is it heroic? Or is it weak? Do you have a sense of destiny? Or do you have a sense of emptiness? What do you think is your destiny? The destiny of Earth? The destiny of the human race? The story you tell yourself — the myth within which you live your life — strongly affects your feelings and the ultimate outcome of your life.
And it can change. You can change it deliberately.
the myths we live by
MYTHS HAVE BEEN A PART of humankind since very near the beginning. We call them myths when they are other people’s stories; we call them true when the story is our own.
A shaman sitting around the campfire 20,000 years ago telling his people how their tribe came to be wasn’t sharing what he thought of as a “myth” or fun little story; the story he told was the context of their daily lives. It was the pattern each of their experiences fit into. It gave their lives meaning. It gave each of them purpose for their existence. It enriched their lives...or it deadened it, depending on the story.
Some of the stories we hear of nonscientific people seem quaint — even ridiculous — to us; we all know the earth is not sitting on the back of a giant turtle; we know the universe wasn’t created by the wind.
If those nonscientific people took a ride in a space shuttle and looked at the earth, they could see for themselves there’s no giant turtle. And they would come up with a different story. But they would come up with a story. Everyone has either accepted a story from their culture or their family, or created one of their own. Everyone has a story they live. And so have you.
It’s important to live within a story that gives your life dignity and purpose. It’ll make a difference in your life, far beyond improving your mood. And you don’t have to force yourself to believe in an old myth if you don’t believe it. Your “myth,” to enrich your life, has to fit into your existing knowledge. It has to be true for you.
Because we know so much about the world, many of the old myths are difficult to believe in. Our security-blankets have been snatched away. And for many people, the modern stories they live by are empty, desolate, negative and hopeless. But it doesn't have to be that way.
We now know the universe is vast. We know the earth is not the center of everything. We know the forces of gravity and the size of stars and galaxies are beyond our ability to grasp, and they dwarf us and our lives in comparison. But that knowledge doesn’t mean you have to live by a desolate story. It lends itself to nobility and heroism just as easily as any other body of knowledge.
For example, you also know that this one little planet is the only one we know of with life on it. Life is precious. The fact that you and I exist at all is utterly amazing! The existence of the universe, and the existence of life is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Many people take this scientific knowledge and — without any leaps of faith — create for themselves a story with meaning. For example, they may decide it is their sacred duty to protect and preserve this planet and its precious forms of life.
A person in a position of power may work for policies to prevent animals from becoming extinct or policies to clean up pollution or policies to promote cooperation with other nations. A mother may devote her life to her children and give them wisdom and courage and an appreciation for this rare planet and the miracle of life. A typist for a large office may devote some of his spare time to writing letters to his representatives on issues he thinks are important, fighting the noble battle for Life.
Anybody in any position may play an important and even crucial part in the way things unfold in the future. You may make an important difference. You don’t think so? Neither did George Washington in the first part of his life. And what if he hadn’t helped lead the colonies in their fight for freedom? What if he was the crucial difference and we lost the war? What if our experiment with democracy and human rights had failed? It was not a “self-evident truth,” it was an invention; it never existed in the long history of our species.
If the colonists' fight against the King of England had failed, would kings and fascist dictators rule the world today? Would the idea of individual human rights have disappeared? Would freedom have been snuffed out? It’s quite possible. Human rights didn’t exist in all the history of civilization.
Who can say what a difference he made? Who knows what difference you will make? Your life isn’t over.
In the struggle for the right of women to vote in the United States, one obscure man made a difference. He was a representative in a small state. I don’t even know his name. But the right of women to vote (which had won in the Senate by only one vote) had to win in the House. And it did — again by one vote, and that one vote was our hero: A representative in a small state who was expected to vote against it.
But his mother wrote him a letter and urged him to vote yes. Her letter moved him, and he voted, and the world has never been the same. That woman may not have done another significant thing in her life, but what she did made a difference. All those small acts of integrity she committed in her life that earned her son’s respect led up to that one important moment when she changed his mind and changed the lives of millions forever after.
Each small, relatively meaningless act of her life had meaning and purpose. She may have realized that; maybe not. She may have lived a life couched in a story of nobility and heroism; or maybe she thought of herself as just one worthless person in a sea of worthless people. We don’t know what story she lived. But that isn’t important now. She has passed on.
You, however, are alive and kicking. Your story is important.
You may be destined to make a difference. You may be the one person who turns the tide. Something important may depend on your goodness or your intelligence or your strength. And all the circumstances of your life right now, especially the parts you don’t like, may be perfectly preparing you for the part you will play in the destiny of the earth.
Some people make a difference with their lives but don’t know it, because what they did only set the stage for what came later, but what came later could only have happened if that stage was set. Whether you see the results of your strength and goodness isn’t the point. The point is that the story you live by makes a difference in your life right now, regardless of what happens later.
If you have a cynical or empty or tragic story right now, it may make all the difference that you’re reading this. This may be your turning point. And your belief that it is your mission to do what you can may be what keeps you trying against the odds, and it may be that because you try against the odds, you make a crucial difference.
Your story is to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make it a good one. Create a story that gives you dignity and purpose and meaning and strength of character. Teach that story to your children.
You may be the one.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.