How do you tell your life story?

Today I was working with a client who was having a hard weekend as she contemplated the story of her life. She got pregnant at 17, had a baby, and lost her friends. She raised her daughter and cared for her sick parents, and then they died. She’d spent her whole life caring for others, and now she was all alone.

This is the tragedy of her life. I asked her to tell the story as a comedy, and she couldn’t see one. So I showed her the difference by using my life as an example.

Here’s my tragedy:

My father was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler who cheated on my mom and lost our house on a craps table. Then he moved us to North Idaho away from our friends, and then abandoned us. My mom supported us by running a newspaper route at 3:00 every morning, 365 days a year. In the winter her car would get stuck in the deep snow and she’d have to dig herself out in the dark so she could keep delivering papers. Our family was broken, and I thought money could fix it. So went away to the big city to make some, and I worked myself to the bone. Life was stressful and hard because I was a hayseed from North Idaho who was ill-equipped to live in big cities. When I returned home with my money I learned that it had all been for naught. The money that I thought would solve everything didn’t put our family back together again.

And here’s my comedy:

I grew up in the mountains of Coeur d’Alene Idaho with my mom and two sisters. Money was tight, but we loved each other and we could always count on our mom to provide for us. She was a hard worker and so were we. We also had a good life. We picked huckleberries in the summertime and made pies in the wintertime. Coeur d’Alene sits on the north end of a beautiful lake, and I wanted a house on the water so our family could enjoy wonderful times in it, so I went away to the big city to earn some. I didn’t know anything about living in a city. I didn’t know the etiquette of revolving doors (you don’t get into the same compartment as everyone else). I didn’t know that you must stand on the south-bound side of the street if you want to catch the bus that’s going south. I had to learn all that. It was hard but I made good friends and good money and I returned to Idaho, bought my waterfront property, and now I enjoy it with my friends and family.

What’s the difference between these two stories? One makes us laugh and one makes us cry. But there’s a more important difference. The facts of each story are equally true, but the spirit of the comedy is more true. The tragedy puts me at the effect of things in my life. Bad things happened to me, and so my life was bad. The comedy recognizes my choices in creating my own outcomes. There’s a sense of optimism in the comedy, because I wasn’t at the effect of things. I chose how to perceive what was happening in my life. I saw myself making things happen, rather than having things happen to me.

Do you see the difference? It’s powerful. My client saw it right away, and then she could see her life in a much more empowering way. She chose to have a baby at an age when most girls would have an abortion. She raised her daughter, put herself through college, and got a great job. She loved her parents enough to care for them when they were sick. She loved her friends, and she could reconnect with them and keep on loving them even though they’d lost touch for a while. Her weekend was suddenly much brighter.

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