-Your Nested Story
The stories we adopt influence how we act in the world. The more aligned our personal stories are with what’s True, the easier it will become to interact with the world in the most ideal manner.
In the military, it’s important to know how your smaller unit’s mission nests within the bigger mission. It allows you to deviate from the original plan when you sense the fog of war, as long as you try your best to contribute to the goal of the bigger mission. When soldiers lose sight of how their mission fits in with the intent of the nation, naturally their faith in sacrifice weakens. When the why of the fight is lost, the will disappears, too.
There’s a scene in Band of Brothers ahead of the D-day invasion that depicts planning the operation on multiple levels, starting with the flag-level leadership down to the privates. They knew that the paratroopers had a high chance of getting scattered in the drop, so the briefing communicated to them how they could still accomplish the mission when they banded together in small troops on the ground. Their activity at the squad level (about 9 to 12 soldiers) was linked with the higher unit’s mission of destroying the enemy positions.
They knew what story they were a part of and that allowed them to act in the absence of guidance from higher headquarters.
Recovering from our moral injuries is not different from retrieving our place in humanity’s storyline. Our psyche doesn’t live inside a space made up of material objects. It exists in a space made up of a story that tells us how to act and which things matter the most. If someone asks you about the best part of your week, you don’t recall the series of events in the same language and tone as an instruction manual. There’s a beginning, middle, end, and maybe even a plot twist. That’s how we communicate with each other about things that matter.
To recover, we first have to accept that there’s a bigger story out there that explains why we’re here and then reconnect our actions on the ground with the intent of the bigger mission.
We’re not designed to create our own story without a connection to a bigger story. Living in a fake story, or one we don’t truly believe in, won’t work. We each have a mission and it’s shaped after a bigger mission. It’s why we can lose ourselves in listening to a good story, why fictional characters can make us laugh or cry. They’re telling our story and we can’t help but be captivated.
Once we accept that there’s a cosmic storyline that we’re a part of—however we reach that conclusion—the rest of the adventure begins. What, then, is the nature of this cosmic storyline? What have most humans through out history concluded about this idea? I would offer that for starters, let’s consider a story based on unconditional love of a creator for his creation.
Unconditional love means that there’s nothing we need to do, no performance measures we have to attain, in order to receive it. It starts as a gift, but it continues as we accept that gift and apply our individual talents to it. Growing is the process of taking responsibility for this gift and knowing how we can distribute it, first to the part of ourselves that was injured due to trauma, then to others battling the same thing.
Reconnecting our bridge to unconditional love allows us to reconnect the bridge between who we are now, who we were during our “wars,” and who we will become. The past, present, and future you need to tell a coherent story to each other, and not oppose, deny, and shame each other.
If the past, present, and future you are not in harmony, you’ll fret about things you can’t change in your past and worry about things that are out of your control in the future.
From Story to Hormones
We humans have this very curious ability: We can mentally replay the past and fantasize about the future, and as a response, make a biological change in our body. Thinking about something that’s not in the present moment can inform a neuroendocrine (the tandem functions of the nervous and hormonal systems) response in the entire body. When the mind informs the brain that there’s a reason to worry, the brain dutifully pumps out chemicals in response to that thought. These chemicals, in turn, reach every cell in the body and inform the cells how to read off their genetic code. (For a deep dive on that process, check out the science of epigenetics.)
What the Stoics knew philosophically two millennia ago, science is now showing: the problem isn’t the problem, it’s the thought about the problem that’s the problem.
Continuous thinking and mulling about a problem in an unhealthy way will keep opening up that valve on the body’s emergency response system, which can be physically damaging. If our cells are constantly being told that the environment is untrustworthy, every part of us becomes constantly on guard. And we aren’t designed to be on guard 100% of the time.
So why are we even able to think ahead and consider the past, anyway? Why would humans be designed in such a way that we can think ourselves to damage and disease? Zebras can be observed grazing peacefully near sleeping lions. The zebra’s defense systems don’t kick in unless the lions are actively attacking them. All animals except for humans, as far as we know, only have the cognitive ability to live in the present. If there’s no actual danger in the external world, there’s no response to danger internally.
The stress response only turns on in response to an externally perceived threat. This is why zebras don’t get ulcers.
We have the ability to abstract, to think in conceptual terms, to picture the image of the sky in our minds while we’re laying down in our caves. This gave us the ability to invent. It means we can invent concepts that can turn into new and useful, concrete things, but it also means we could start inventing imagined dangers, and reacting to them as if they were real. We so often confuse a concept for the real thing.
The ability to represent also comes with the ability to misrepresent.
The ability to abstract and invent means we could also abstract about the future and make sacrifices now for a better one later.
Discovery of the future is the same as the idea that a young person “has potential.” “Potential” is an abstract idea and so is the future. Maybe they’re the same thing, but we behave as if it is real. We act on abstraction, but we also get to decide what we ought to abstract. That is the process of integrating stories and narratives, so we best have a clear understanding of what story we belong to.
Discipline today frees you to act how you want in the future
Discipline is necessary to align ourselves with the bigger story. If the squad-level military unit doesn’t discipline itself to, say, routinely talk to the higher unit mission to provide situation reports, they would be unable to maintain that relationship with the bigger intent. Engaging in routine activities, developing competence in the small things, is the fine detail of tying yourself to something bigger, something that matters most, something like the highest ideal of what it means to live well as a human.
The human potential for creation, for dreams, for visions, also means there is the potential to live in a state of existential dread. And living in that state for a long time can manifest in the body as chronic disease. This happens by overstimulation of the body’s stress response, a response that happens far too often because of a false abstraction in the mind about how we interpret what’s really happening.
The majority of primary care visits – actually up to 90 percent – are stress-related. If our stress was solely in response to the present threats that are actually dangerous – or to a stressful workout, aka the good kind of stress – who knows how much that statistic could be reduced?
In my undergrad classes, I studied the art and science of inventory management. The gold standard for an industrial engineer is to organize a production facility so that inventory arrives precisely when it’s needed, no sooner, and no later. This is called “just-in-time inventory” and means that a facility manager wouldn’t need to spend any additional funds on extra floor space and storage for back stock.
When money is bound up in inventory that’s not moving anywhere, that money isn’t useful for the company. We have to make a decision: we can choose to pay for stock that will be stored in a warehouse for who knows how long, or we can invest that same money into something that is more likely to make a return.
Constantly applying the stress response when it’s not needed is like storing up excess inventory in the warehouse. By stressing too much, we don’t have enough energy left for day-to-day functioning. The energy is going into our back stock rather than to our present tense operational needs, so to speak. We need to learn to have just-in-time stress responses so we’re not binding all our resources in an inventory full of old sorrows or future worries.
It may feel like our stress response is out of our control and that there’s no possible way to delay the time between the stimulus and the response. We might have been in a prolonged stressful or even abusive situation where that stress response was necessary to survive. However, the inertia of that prolonged stress can build and become difficult to reverse. But just as that inertia was built, can it be dismantled and repurposed.
The discipline of practicing awareness, among many other things, is the practice of driving a wedge between stimuli and response. For this to work, we must be disciplined. For us to see that discipline as a worthwhile activity, it’s necessary to see how that activity is part of a bigger story.
Of course, some stimuli-response cycles are so rapid that there’s no use trying to drive a wedge in between. And you wouldn’t want to, unless sliced feet from stepping on Legos is your thing. It’s good to keep some reflexes, but it’s also good to rewire others so that they’re no longer reflexes, but conscious responses. This wedge might look like counting to ten when someone else expresses anger, or becoming aware of our response to an abrasive conversation. We can practice creating space between the stimulus and our response, and we might begin to notice that it’s actually possible to rewire a healthy response.
Practiced enough, the reflex is toward the positive instead of toward the negative.
If all of our stress responses were “just-in-time,” the potential to develop disease as a result (other factors being equal) is nearly zero. In fact, we need to be stressed from time to time, to be pushed a little past our limit so we can grow, which does require a dose of stress. But to not cost ourselves our long-term health, the dose should be just-in-time and in response to present-tense “manufacturing,” not toward unnecessary “back stock.”
There are several practices we can use to relieve some of that excess warehouse inventory of stress. The table below shows some of the things that can either add to our stored stress or detract from it. In the following modules of this course, we’ll get into more detail on these practices, but it’s helpful to first survey where we’re headed and some of the underlying reasons behind it.
|Filling the warehouse||Relieving the warehouse|
|Knee-jerk responses when things don’t go our way.||Focused attention on things that are in our control.|
|Negative self-talk: “You’re not good enough.” “You’re a failure.” “To hell with it.”||Positive self-talk: “You’re perfectly in progress.” “Everyone suffers sometimes.” “I’m not betrayed, I’m loved.”|
|Sugar, processed foods, most grains, fast foods, and industrial seed oils (like vegetable-, canola-, and cottonseed oil).||Foods as close to the Earth as we can get: pasture-raised meats, local produce, wild-caught fish.|
|Extended workout sessions that leave us exhausted and overworked.||Workouts that leave us feeling better than when we started.|
|Avoiding social interactions.||Scheduling one conversation per week with someone we trust.|
|Racing thoughts before bed.||Gratitude journaling before bed.|
I introduced this lesson with the idea of nesting our stories with something bigger. So what does that have to do with just-in-time stress? To rewire those old, negative reflex responses, we must engage in a difficult practice of lifestyle change. And why should we go through the trouble? What keeps us going when the flesh tells us to stop?
Because we know it’s for a bigger mission.
You’ve now made it through your first module of R+R Elements!
Moral injury isn’t a topic that’s easy to put into words. Now I’d like to invite you to reflect on the nature of this injury for yourself and to do your best to describe it, whether through pen and paper or brush and canvas. It’s possible to generate new life through the uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, disciplines of becoming more aware of ourselves. But reaching a higher conscious state of our stories and how they fit into the bigger human storyline seems to me the best and only lasting remedy to a puncture as deep as trauma.
While there are three modules left in R+R Elements, if you have made it to this point and are ready to take your recovery journey to the next level, I invite you to apply for the full R+R program using this link. While we review your application, you can continue working through Elements.
Today’s Assignment – Self-reflective Journal Entry
- Make two columns like in the table above. Fill in things that add to your stress warehouse and things that help relieve it. Be as specific as you can.
- What is one small thing you can do today to relieve the stress warehouse?
- Of the things in the column that fill the stress warehouse, which of them have become a habit? If you could snap your fingers and instantly replace that habit with a different one, what would it be? What’s standing in your way from starting the process of change right now?
We’ve got a longer one for you today, but there’s no equipment necessary for this exercise and it’s just over 45 minutes long.
Make some space in the yard or living room, grab a mat, and let’s go.