post written by: Marc Chernoff

When Our Stories Hold Us Back


Is your story holding you back?

She rarely makes eye contact.  Instead, she looks down at the ground.  Because the ground is safer.  Because unlike people, it expects nothing in return.  She doesn’t have to feel ashamed.  The ground just accepts her for who she is.

As she sits at the bar next to me, she stares down at her vodka tonic, and then the ground, and then her vodka tonic.  “Most people don’t get me,” she says.  “They ask me questions like, ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Were you beaten as a child?’  But I never respond.  Because I don’t feel like explaining myself.  And I don’t think they really care anyway.”

Just then, a young man sits down at the bar on the opposite side of her.  He’s a little drunk, and says, “You’re pretty.  May I buy you a drink?”  She stays silent and looks back down at the ground.  After an awkward moment, he accepts the rejection, gets up, and walks away.

“Would you prefer that I leave too?” I ask.  “No,” she says without glancing upward.  “But I could use some fresh air.  You don’t have to come, but you can if you want to.”  I follow her outside and we sit on a street curb in front of the bar.

“Brrr… It’s a chilly night!”

“Tell me about it,” she says while maintaining her normal downward gaze.  The warm vapor from her breath cuts through the cold air and bounces off of the ground in front of her.  “So why are you out here with me?  I mean, wouldn’t you rather be inside in the warmth, talking to normal people about normal things?”

“I’m out here because I want to be.  Because I’m not normal.  And look, I can see my breath, and we’re in San Diego.  That’s not normal either.  Oh, and you’re wearing old Airwalk shoes, and so am I…  Which may have been normal in 1994, but not anymore.”

She glances up at me and smirks, this time exhaling her breath upward into the moonlight.  “I see your ring.  You’re married, right?”

“Yeah,” I reply.

“Well, you’re off the market… and safe, I guess.  So can I tell you a story?”  I nod my head.

As she speaks, her emotional gaze shifts from the ground, to my eyes, to the moonlit sky, to the ground, and back to my eyes again.  This rotation continues in a loop for the duration of her story.  And every time her eyes meet mine she holds them there for a few seconds longer than she did during the previous rotation.

I don’t interject once.  I listen to every word.  And I assimilate the raw emotion present in the tone of her voice and in the depth of her eyes.

When she finishes, she says, “Well now you know my story.  You think I’m a freak, don’t you?”

“Place your right hand on your chest,” I tell her.  She does.  “Do you feel something?” I ask.

“Yeah, I feel my heartbeat.”

“Now place both of your hands on your face and move them around slowly.”  She does.  “What do you feel now?” I ask.

“Well, I feel my eyes, my nose, my mouth… I feel my face.”

“That’s right,” I reply.  “But unlike you, stories don’t have heartbeats, and they don’t have faces.  Because stories are not alive… they’re not people.  They’re just stories.”

She stares into my eyes for a prolonged moment, smiles and says, “Just stories we live through.”

“Yeah…  And stories we learn from.”

Photo by: Sean McGrath

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36 Comments

  • And stories from which we gain new strengths because of new experiences. These strengths will eventually help us to lead a happier life.

  • Amazing!

    …and we really love living through stories. :)

    Like an open-source jigsaw, we gather bits & pieces which turns out to be our own!

    And, its up to us to make the best of it all! =)

    ~ Ronak R. / RoKZRooM

  • I love this post. So beautifully written and thought-provoking. Stories we live through…stories we learn from…I love it! Thanks!

    http://positivelypresent.typepad.com

  • Touching story and a great point at the end! Thanks for this great piece of writing/insight. Eric

  • Our story is something that unfolds as the manifestation of our thoughts and actions. If we focus on the journey the story writes itself. If we focus on the story we remain tethered to the past. Sadly, the desire for approval writes the script for some peoples life story. When we give ourselves approval it becomes unnecessary for others to understand us. Understanding does not need to be a prerequisite for acceptance.

  • Beautiful. Simply Beautiful. There is nothing else that comes to mind to describe the meaning behind that post.

    Whether it was fiction or fact, you are gifted for conveying such a message in such a suttle (yet powerful) way.

  • As always, thanks so much for the feedback. I’m traveling today, but I’ll be checking in on my iPhone to see what you all have to say about this one. ;-)

  • Marc - You’ve really become quite the storyteller! It fits you well. This is another great one. If only we could let go of the negative stories about ourselves. The freedom would truly be amazing!

  • Great story!

  • Superb storytelling. I’m touched. Stumbled.

  • Moving story….

    Yes, with each life experience, there is always a key take away. I sometimes feel that we learn more from our failures, disappointments and regret, than the successful moments.

  • Truly amazing storytelling. And quite the excellent post as well. There isn’t a way I can describe it except inspirational. Just an inspirational post.

  • Your story telling skills are off the charts! Thank you for the fascinating read.

  • That is a great story.

    My sister is stuck in her story, I think I might gently share this with her.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Sara

  • I always learn from my past and try to improve my weakneses.You have written a very great article.Its all about me and my life.

  • “The ground is safer” indeed. Sometimes I feel like that. Nice post!

  • Lovely storytelling. And so true.

  • @All:
    I’m really glad some of you are enjoying the storytelling posts. Going forward I will continue intermixing the storytelling posts with some traditional list posts (like the last one).

    @Shamelle:
    I completely agree. I learn far more from my failures than I do my successes.

    That’s why I hate seeing people stuck in a rut over something that happened in the past. These stories and life experiences must be used as a means to grow.

  • This has the same feel as a Charles de Lint story. He’s all about the stories within and how they affect people.

    BTW, thanks for stopping by Zen Habits today and supporting my post there!

  • I love the stories you two put into articles. It’s simply amazing the way you integrate everyday interactions into meaningful observations.

  • That’s beautifully written! I love it the way the ‘moral of the story’ slowly reveals itself.

    As to stories: I think we cling to them because they define who we think we are. And we’re afraid of letting them go, because - who are we then?

  • Fantastic story, I use to hold myself back because of past experiences. I have learnt it is best to let the past go and move forward…..to bigger and better things :)

  • An amazing piece of writing sends the reader’s emotions in a rollercoaster ride.

    Another wonderful story, reading this just made a day of hell feel like heaven again…

    =)

  • WOW!

  • Beautiful!

  • Very touching and inspirational. Will be coming here more often :)

  • this is incredible, and so true, however i also believe i somewhat disagree with it- any author would tell you stories are alive, and that they write books to make those stories come alive (even though they aren’t physically, or anything like that). In terms of life stories, yes they can never be brought alive again without being at a specific place you’re talking about. However stories will always be a part of you and they shifted and changed you into who you are today- and YOU are alive. So by some sort of transitive property, those stories are making you alive, and making you into the person you are today. Since they live on in you, I would say they -are- alive. In the same way that someone who has passed away lives on in you.

  • wow. i can relate to her. sometimes, all a person needs is another person’s view in life. you’re amazing.

  • I know someone like her and I always wonder should I talk to her? Why doesn’t she interact? Everyone has a story and I wish someday she’ll tell me her’s!

  • Great story. A bit twisted, but a powerful life lesson.

  • Glenda Kaufman
    May 11th, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Inspiring story. Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God. ~ Karl Barth

  • Teresa Dunsdon
    May 13th, 2012 at 1:32 am

    I wouldn’t want to have it any otter way…

  • This is years after the post, but I’m looking for inspiring things to read on this 4th of July, 2012!

    I had to sit and think about it after I finished reading it. Wondering how many people I labeled in my ignorance.

    Then my thoughts went to something I’m writing about people who live in their past so they can use it as an excuse to remain there. And the families telling those stories to their kids, angry because they cannot succeed, blaming it on the now when it is a past they never lived…just the stories generation after generation.

    The anger that the past is still here, though they cannot leave it behind and celebrate how far they have come. How men, women, groups, grants, are supposed to help them, instead keeping the flames of the anger going out of selfish greed for fame, money, votes.

    The two stories are different but not the same. Can I use this? I will add your name and website.

    Other then that? I adore this website!

  • The ground is much safer. Learning from stories is what sent me there. What happens when you hit the point where there is no going forward but rather, it’s all about trying to trim away the past in order to push on through?

  • Beautiful! Thank you so much :)

  • Yes, it is August 9, 2014 and I feel myself, heart and mind, looking back at my story and realizing that I have stories, they don’t have me. Thank you.

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