[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, December 2013]

It’s a basic axiom in psychology that the way we think about ourselves determines a great deal about how we conduct ourselves.  And more importantly, how we feel about ourselves, both as individuals and a society.

In our modern world, the machine model has triumphed over our thinking about ourselves.  I can remember even in grade school, my classroom health textbooks had titles such as “the body machine,” and Saturday morning jingles like School House Rock stated, “You’re a machine, I’m a machine.”  The model is so popular because it offers up quick ways to measure health and treat illness.  Each body organ is a mini-machine, doing its specialized work, as part of a greater machine.  Food is our “fuel,” and exercise is considered a way to make the machine more “efficient.”  Doctors can even remove defective “parts” and replace them with transplanted tissue or even literally machine parts of metal and plastic.

There’s no surprise then that the machine model of the mind wasn’t far behind.  Sigmund Freud’s theory cast the mind as basically a steam engine.  Even today, research is out to find which piece of brain machinery controls this or that behavior.

As useful as it can be, though, the machine model can also take us to some pretty uncomfortable places.  For example, when a machine starts to break down, what do we do with it?  Why, we throw it away, of course, and get a new one.  A shinier one.  Newer is always better.  So how does this shape our ideas about the elderly?  Or about experienced employees in the workplace?  And because all machines exist to do work, the most important question: Now that we’ve made the human machine more efficient, what is its purpose?

What doesn’t get discussed much are the alternatives to the machine model.  In the book “Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct” (Sarbin, 1986), various authors propose a “story” model for a human being.  Now the word “story” gets a bad rap.  At best, it’s associated with fiction, entertainment.  In my grandparents’ time, saying a person “tells stories” was a euphemism for conveying that they told lies.

A  more forgiving definition for a story is “a set of events that happen over time.”  Each one of us has a story, and each part of our physical, mental and social lives also has a story.  We’re all walking, talking anthologies.  In a story, food ceases to be mere fuel, and becomes a way of sharing stories with others, even a story itself (“This meal was so good, how did you do it?”).  Exercise stops being about efficiency, and becomes a struggle against the odds, a means of heroism and self-improvement.

Unlike a machine, which has to be tasked with a future purpose, a story exists in the telling, in the present.  It is, that it is.  What’s more, stories are timeless.  Once a story exists, it is forever; no one can unmake what has already happened.  Each time we tell our story, we bring it to life all over again, we renew it.  Unlike machines, which have to be newer to be valued, stories can have some age on them.  Aren’t “the classics” older stories that have stood the test of time?  And what do we recall best about the elderly but the stories with which they gift us?

I’m rather drawn to the kinds of options that existing as a story can offer me.  So what is your story?

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