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Killing Phantoms

“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the ink pot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her.” – Virginia Woolf

Storytelling is the most human of arts, the one skill that makes the salesperson or the public speaker excel, that makes our living history come alive. And there’s no doubt that Woolf was a great storyteller when you read this excerpt from a speech she gave in 1931. It came to my attention because of one line, the one I’ve bolded, that became a famous quote.

And what a quote! We all fight our phantoms. Voices in our heads that gently tell us that maybe we should do something less risky, less audacious. Personally, I’m fighting a lazy sloth that keeps whispering in my ear that it’s okay to skip a workout today and eat some cheese. I hate that bastard, but he’s just so persuasive.

If we agree that storytelling is an art, then what of the stories we tell ourselves? Myths about how the world is and works. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to work out or reasons why we aren’t going after a position we desire or whatever, really, that the voice says is out of reach for someone like us. And we form ideas about how the world works, and the rules that are in place that we all must follow. Which is why we either chafe or become fascinated with those who live outside the boundaries we put ourselves within.

“I cannot overemphasize enough how much everything is made up and there are no rules.”
– Tiago Forte

A statement like Forte’s jumps out at you for the boldness of his words. But don’t we see the truth in it even as we feel the resistance within? For if the way we see the world and our place in it is all made up, what comes next? Chaos?

“Myths… are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.” – Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

The perception of order in a chaotic world comes from the stories we all agree on. We agree to live together in peace, to pay our bills, to not cut in line, to do our part, to vote and get married and raise children to be good citizens so that the next generation is just a little bit better off than we might be. This is the mass cooperation that Harari speaks of, all myths commonly subscribed to.

Which is why we become outraged when someone breaks the rules. December 7th, September 11th or January 6th become dates forever ingrained in our minds because the rules of social order were so clearly broken. I can feel the outrage I felt on September 11th or January 6th even as I write this. But outrage doesn’t solve anything, clear thinking does. Stimulus and response, as Viktor Frankl so often reminds us.

“Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change.” No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is you.”
– Anthony De Mello, Awareness

We can’t change the world, but we can change how we feel about the world. We can take meaningful action in our own lives to pivot away from outrage and towards clear thinking. I can ignore the cheese-pushing troll that lives in my head and just go work out. We can see clearly which perceived rules are holding us back from making progress in our own lives and kill those phantoms once and for all.

It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. But reality is what you make of it. Once you get past those phantoms.

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