Who’s really telling your story?

What happens when you’re living a story that someone else handed you?

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5 minute read
A photo from inside a scenic mountain cave in Puerto Rico, showing two people in silhouette in front of a grand tropical view
How do you make your own story, regardless of the view, or how others see you? (Photo courtesy of Michelle Chikaonda.)

More than a decade ago, I fell out in a bad way with someone who had been my friend for eight years, since our first week of college. Though we have occasionally crossed paths in the time since then, we did not recover our friendship. In the initial days after the fallout, I was a ball of self-righteous rage: the precipitating event was something that had been unquestionably, wrongfully, done to me.

As my feelings began to settle down, though, I began to ask myself: though she had hurt me deeply, what was my role in the final injury? Why did she feel it was okay to do what she’d done? What was the real story of our eight-year friendship? Was the event that broke us up not as extraordinary as I had first felt, but in fact inevitable—a predictable climax precisely because of our friendship’s true storyline?

The stories you’re handed

The question sends me back to Hamilton, particularly its final number: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” It is a retrospective on who lived to tell the stories of the historical figures the musical is based upon. The song is situated an undisclosed number of years past the final events of the play—Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands—and is part reflection, part instruction: you can’t predict who will end up telling your story after you are gone.

There is an interpretation of the song, though, which could make the question pertinent to the present rather than a hypothetical post facto analysis of an imagined past. “Who tells your story?” could mean, who is actually telling your story right now? Because if you look closer, it may not be you.

In my recent BSR essay, I argued that in order to get through times of difficulty, whether short- or long-term, we must decide on the story that makes those times make sense to our lives. I reflected on Hamilton’s mid-show number, “One Last Time,” in which George Washington chooses to step away from the next presidential election so he can write his story for himself, on his own terms, while there’s still time.

In order to even tell the right story for yourself, though, you must first understand the stories that have been handed down to you—even forced upon you—by your family, community, and society: you must understand the many whos powerfully shaping your story over the course of your life.

The perfectly present person

Some weeks after the initial sting of my own friendship-ending event had faded, I realized that I had been performing the role of the perfectly present person, not just to my former friend, but to others in my community. I was so perfect in my constitution that I had no needs of my own, only concerning myself—thus, ourselves in the scope of a friendship—with the needs of the other person. If I was well-liked in my community, it was not necessarily because of who I was, but because of a function I performed in so many people’s lives.

In those relational set-ups, then, I wasn’t writing my story with the agency I believed; I had been handing others the power to drive our collective narrative, and then figuring out the places in which I could support that narrative. I as a person never fully showed up: the performative function of me did. My former friend had ultimately hurt me by not actually seeing me as a full person with wants and needs equivalent to her own at a time where it deeply mattered—yet this perception wasn’t entirely her fault.

In retrospect, my performance was a form of manipulation and control. If I knew that people would value me more because of the things I did for them, my feeling of being valued was directly proportional to everything I did to extract that feeling.

A scene from Hamilton. The actor playing Hamilton stands on a box. The circling ensemble dancers all lean deeply toward him.
When the world leans in on the story that’s yours, what do you do? (From the 2021 national tour of ‘Hamilton,’ photo by Joan Marcus.)

This behavior wasn’t fashioned intentionally by me; it served a familial and societal storyline handed down to me, and played out subconsciously. It was the sense that I don’t have worth outside of what I do for others, with the implied corollary that the more I could render myself invisible, the better things would be for everyone in my community—until the wreckage from living this out began to accrue.

It wasn’t my story. But I was nonetheless living it. The refrain in Hamilton’s final song, “Who tells your story?” is a call to do the work of recognizing this—the familial histories, generational narratives, and societal constructs shaping your life.

The genuine answer

Communities and societies must have reasonably cohesive stories in order to function, which is to say that on a certain level, getting instructions on what your general story should be is not just a good thing, but essential to community survival. But in every society, large or small, there is room for multiple stories to coexist—room for multiple personal truths to illuminate rather than conflict with each other, room for learning about and existing with each other. It is not a zero-sum game of absolute winners and absolute losers, people who are absolutely visible and others who are absolutely invisible.

So “who tells your story” does not have to be me or you, but rather can be me and you: the result of the intentional work to make space for each other, and to do it in the present, rather than as a retrospective reimagining of the moment. But making space for each other starts with making space for yourself—showing up in full, not as a socially determined simulation of what an ideal self in your relationships looks like. Only then do you get a genuine answer to “who tells your story?” It’s you.

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