We Write the Stories

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Don Draper (portrayed by actor Jon Hamm) from AMC's Mad Men.
Don Draper (portrayed by actor Jon Hamm) from AMC’s Mad Men.

“People tell you who they are. But we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.” – Don Draper, Mad Men

I sabotaged the last serious relationship I had prior to dating my ex-wife because I didn’t think my girlfriend was good “wife material.”

We couldn’t make it because we were too philosophically different.

We couldn’t make it because we had different ideas about how to raise children.

We couldn’t make it because I was too scared of what my family would say.

In other words, I was a know-nothing asshole.

I was 20 and 21 years old and knew as much as my five-year-old son about taking responsibility for my choices and what it means to be an adult.

She was brilliant. Thoughtful. Liked (maybe even loved) and respected me. We never ran out of things to discuss. We were both passionate about writing. She used to credit me for teaching her how to write news stories even though she’s always been more talented, and to prove it she’s been writing for one of the five largest U.S. daily newspapers for nearly a decade.

Most importantly, she was cool under fire. During challenging times (me being a dick), she was always kind.

If good communication is the key to making a relationship work, she gave me every opportunity.

Despite being nearly three years younger than me, she was almost always more adult.

Because I was scared of my family rejecting us for being together; and because I was “right” and she was “wrong” about certain things, and thus, could never be the mother of my children (I believed), I used a summer apart during college to break up with her like a coward.

Two months later, I entered a relationship with the girl of my dreams.

The perfect partner.

Three years later, we were married.

How’d that work out for everybody?

People tell you who they are. But we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.

We believe the stories we’re told (or that we tell ourselves) because we want to believe them.

We don’t believe the stories that make us uncomfortable because they don’t align with our deeply held cultural beliefs.

It’s why some people believe in God and others do not.

It’s why supporters of President Obama believe he’s a messiah while his detractors call him a terrorist.

It’s why same-sex marriage is both loved and hated.

It’s why one mother’s beloved unborn child can be considered an inconvenient parasitic fetus by another.

Otherwise sane and reasonable people can lose both sanity and reason debating these things—both sides equally convinced they’re correct.

Opposing viewpoints sometimes make us uncomfortable. They challenge our deeply held beliefs. Frighten us.

So we believe what we want to believe. To feel less scared. To feel more safe.

No matter what the truth is.

The Storytellers

I have a bad case of strep throat. This is my third day on antibiotics which is the only reason I’m among the living.

I think I may have written this same thing in January when I had a much milder case of strep, but it bears repeating: you never feel quite as alone as you do when you’re sick in a house by yourself.

It forces you to think and think and think and think, and if you don’t want to think—you watch television because your brain doesn’t work well enough to read.

So, I binged on Mad Men on Netflix for two straight days—consuming more television than I ever have in a two-day window. It was simultaneously awesome and pathetic.

Only Tony Soprano and Walter White (Breaking Bad) are more interesting characters than Don Draper, and Draper pulls it off without being part of organized crime. Amazing show, particularly for those (like me) who work in marketing and advertising.

Aspects of Draper’s personal life are applicable to mine, especially in the middle of the show’s story arc where I am now.

To deal with what’s going on his life (in 1965-ish) Draper has begun keeping a journal with pen and paper. He was reflecting on all of the messiness and complications in our lives when he wrote: “People tell you who they are. But we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

It felt important.

And I believe it’s true.

We choose where to eat, shop, party and worship.

We choose what to drive, wear, do and believe.

We choose who to listen to, spend time with, kiss and love.

We choose all of these things based on the stories we believe about the life we perceive happening around us.

The same life that looks and feels different to each one of us.

And I wonder about the stories people believe about me.

My family.

My friends.

My son.

My ex-wife.

My co-workers.

In the end, everyone believes what they want to believe.

Maybe being more mindful can protect our hearts from those who want to hurt us because they want and need to believe the stories they tell themselves.

Maybe being more mindful can keep us from hurting or alienating others who aren’t who we believe they are.

Maybe we grow with each mistake.

And maybe with enough growth we start telling authentic new stories.

The truth and a bit of kindness is an effective form of persuasion.

When we’re alone with our reflection, our eyes tell us who we are.

But we ignore it because we want the person in the mirror to be whoever we want them to be. Who we need them to be.

And that’s good news.

Because that’s the one story we get to write.

33 thoughts on “We Write the Stories”

  1. I just started watching Mad Men. Don Draper is a great character with some excellent lines.
    One of my favorites so far (I’m only 5 episodes in) is something like “What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell Nylons.”
    That about says it all.

    1. I’m so glad you like it so far.

      As I sit almost through the fourth season, I’d call it my third-favorite show ever behind the Sopranos and Breaking Bad. No coincidence that my two favorite TV characters were in those shows.

      Really good stuff.

      1. Aren’t The Sopranos & Mad Men by the same guy (directed or written I can’t remember)?
        My top three shows are probably Doctor Who, Lost, & Sherlock.
        I liked Breaking Bad but lost track of it after two or three seasons.
        So many good shows, so little time.

        1. I think you might be right about that, young lady… stand by… *visits Google*…

          Yep. Matthew Weiner.

          He’s clearly a television genius.

      2. P.S.-Did you not finish all your antibiotic back in January? It really is necessary to take all ten days worth otherwise you breed Super Mutant bacteria in your body. They lay in wait to strike again. Not taking the entire course of an antibiotic really is doing a disservice to humanity.

        That’s the short version of my antibiotic speech.

  2. I always love your ending wrap-up lines…. They’re clever and leave me with hope. I spent a lifetime trying to “control” other people’s “book of life”. I wanted to be their main character (in the case of a mate) and influence many chapter’s climaxes (kids) but in the end…. I also learned to read the back of their book blurb and accept that it was their own Best Seller. “Best Yeller” in the case of my father! Ultimately (as you so eloquently state) I polish up my own prose. Thanks, Matt!

    1. Hi Stephanie. 🙂

      Thank you very much.

      It’s true. We write hundreds of stories. Our own is the only one we can be absolutely sure is true.

  3. Really, that’s kind of a lonely life, having people always be what we want. It’s a life built of one person and his/her illusions. If I really live that kind of life (I probably do more than I’d like), I think I’d prefer to be deluded and not know how far from the truth I am. On the other hand, seeing people as not-me and not-my-illusions is harsher, but more comforting.

    OK, I’m thinking about what you wrote … now what?

  4. “It’s why one mother’s beloved unborn child can be considered an inconvenient parasitic fetus by another.”

    hmm… i read every single thing you post on here but that is making me consider unfollowing

    1. Well, while I’m disappointed (and very sorry) I’ve offended you because I try extremely hard to never be offensive, my favorite part of this exchange is that I have absolutely no idea what you believe on the topic.

      Just as you have no way of knowing what I believe.

      Rest assured, I won’t be engaging in any debates on the subject. The next time I witness someone change their mind while arguing about such divisive issues will be the first time I’ve ever seen it happen.

      And I feel like me not knowing what you believe, and you not knowing what I believe illustrates my point perfectly.

      Everything in quotes there (in my opinion) is an objective fact. At least, it was intended to be taken as one.

      I took no stance. And on issues like that? I never will. Not in this space. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we argue about things that disconnect us.

    1. I should be 100-percent by Saturday. All downhill (and I mean that in the good way) from here. 🙂 Thank you.

      Breaking Bad was awesome. So glad you liked it.

  5. Ah yes! Accepting people for who they are rather than trying to wish them what we want them to be. A very hard thing to do indeed.

    1. Most of us are probably terrible at it. Practice can make us pretty good at anything, though.

      Thank you so much for reading and taking a moment to write.

  6. I told someone recently, I love you without reservation. This doesn’t mean I don’t see you, it simply means I accept you are flawed, you have history, your baggage has a great number of stickers from all the places you have visited. I am good with all of these things. My love doesn’t come with conditions, it also doesn’t come as a free ride. When you are being a douche, I will tell you.

    I won’t tell you anything about this person other than they are a friend of many years standing who was feeling vulnerable. After that speech I invited them to the backyard where the Lavender is in full bloom. I poured us both a double shot of Herradura Anejo Tequila fresh from the Freezer and we contemplated why when love is without reservation, it is so much easier to cut through the BS.

    This is true also when we love ourselves.

    1. I liked all of this. Very much.

      The lavender. The chilled Anejo. The message.

      Thank you for sharing. Humans have a hard time loving without conditions. We usually reserve it for a very select few.

      1. I think that is our problem. We might love our friends without reservation because they are ‘safe’. We fail to see in our potential lovers / mates the same potential, to love without reservation.

        Maybe it is time to give the same gift to our potential mates.

  7. I was just saying this to someone earlier. We get to define ourselves. Our mistakes, our relationships, and our history doesn’t have to define us. That’s how people who come from nothing sometimes make a huge success of themselves. They choose to write their own story.

    And the quote about people telling you who they are, right from the beginning, it’s so true.

    Be who you want to be, and try really freaking hard not to try to make others into something they are not.

  8. Love Madmen. And you will so love the first half of the final season. Even when it’s a bit slow (the first two episodes) there’s something about the way his character is developing that I could see you appreciating.
    And maybe we each just understand whatever it is about the other person that we can relate to, in whatever way we’ve experienced someone like them (or not.) Like how my Rush-Limbaugh-loving mother agreed to drive one of my best friends to NJ for the birth of her son so her partner could have a fighting chance of adopting their son. Because my Mom knew my friend and loved her for all the great things she is. But when we don’t personally know someone (or anyone gay, for example)-? Harumph.
    I wonder too, if we don’t do that in relationships. Maybe people just need us to be who they need us to be, who they can easiest place us as, adversary or ally? Not sure. But I do so appreciate you posing the question.
    As always, thought-provoking. Thank you for that. (Hope you feel better soon!)

    1. Thank you very much, Jen. Always a pleasure. Hope you and your family have a very nice weekend. (I hear Season 7 is outstanding. I’ll get there.)

  9. So …. clearly I’m catching up from my week off the stinking grid! I have lived in paralyzing fear of the moment I get the stomach flu for the first time since my husband left me. It hasn’t happened yet, in 14 months (by Gods good graces). I will probably cry and cry. 🙁 I’ve made a lot of intentional choices to make sure the parts of the story I CAN control, are true….like running my half marathon, filling a shelf with books I’ve read this year, fasting twice a year….things like that. I was so resentful that one guy could derail my future, that I ultimately decided to create another purposeful future for myself. I don’t know. It helps. Now….if I can only force a happy romantic ending for myself…..before I turn forty. Har Har. Hope you’re feeling better, friend!

  10. Love your blog and now knowing you’re a Madmen fan, I’m even more excited 😉 Thanks for sharing your life & I appreciate your courage to share so honestly. Keep em coming!

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