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RemovedMar 31Liked by Tom Pendergast
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I wasn’t even thinking about this coming out on Easter morning until, well, this morning, but it is a funny juxtaposition (and utterly without consequence for me). I think I’m leaning toward the hard deterministic position … but even if I do, you can’t live that way, as Sapolsky freely admits. As for that 1903/depression bit, I can see that condensing the story made that part unclear: the farm was purchased in 1903, but the old house was sold off during the Depression. I’d have to check with my relatives to track that down for sure! I’m the guy who did much of the Declaration signers genealogy, but the physical history of the farm is a little sketchy.

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So well told, Tom. Thank you for this and your honesty. I have no family history yet share your need to tell my "myth" and to figure out who I really am by writing. I think we all are as you say, "propelled along by choices and drives that I was scarcely conscious of owning,"

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Thanks Ted, I bet this matches up to what you’re doing too. I’ll be working through exactly what I do with this bit of thinking for a while, I suspect.

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Yep. Me, too. I enjoy the back-and-forth we're having. I've got another draft along these lines in the works.

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"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." That quote by Joan Didion has always resonated with me. But what I didn't realize until this moment is that she was probably saying, like you (or rather, what I believe you're saying), that these stories come in retrospect to explain away our actions. Pre-destined in hindsight. So much easier to build your origin myth around events that have already happened!

I think a large number of people would be shocked at how little free will they actually have. Many (most?) believe they have free will. And many (most?) can prove it by choosing the chocolate ice cream today instead of their usual strawberry, just out of spite. They don't really think that, hey, they're still eating ice cream, so they aren't truly thinking too far "outside of the box".

(For the record, I personally believe that we all have free will, but that we tend to make our choices out of laziness, convenience, and opportunity. If strawberry is my favourite flavour, why wouldn't I choose it? Should I choose pistaschio, even if I'm allergic to nuts, just to prove the universe wrong? Exercising your free will is about as easy as changing your personality or adjusting your lifestyle: theoretically possible, but in practicality, doesn't have a high chance of succeeding often.)

To follow your logic a step further: hearing someone's personal origin myth says more about that person in this moment than it does his or her actual origin. Fitzgerald uses that as a storytelling technique in "The Great Gatsby". Gatsby's war service, "Oxford man" status, and medal from Montenegro illustrate -- and contrast -- the myth he wants everyone to believe (including himself and most particularly Daisy) rather than his actual humble origins. When Tom challenges Gatsby on it and the "truth" comes out, we see that the story isn't completely wrong, but it's definitely embellished. (Of course, though, is Gatsby really a "fraud"? And is Tom really a "truth-seeker"? But that's going probably too deep for a comment in a comment section... lol)

We do tell ourselves stories. They might not reflect "truth" or "reality" in the way others might hope or expect. But that's okay; it's not their story. Tell the story *you* want to hear. That's probably where the deeper and more interesting truths are anyway.

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Interesting Graham, thank you. If anything, what I learned from this bit of writing was that it’s all a story and I can write it the way I want. Now this free will bit … it’s just next to impossible to get your head entirely around, isn’t it?

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Mar 31Liked by Tom Pendergast

Interesting, Tom - I suppose I'm coming at this from the opposite point of view, not a lot of personal mythology, so I'm telling stories to make a little sense out of the stars.

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Not a bad approach! Working through this as I did made me think I should be more committed to pure invention in my storytelling, since part of what I think I found was that it’s all invention anyway.

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This is interesting, Tom, as I've never consciously investigated my own personal myth. You've given me something to think about. I do wonder though, if you're not giving yourself enough credit. Willful determination, which I believe you are in strong supply, has little to do with happenstance. I agree there's a lot of luck and environmental factors involved in our success, but many a failure came from perfect circumstances. You've accomplished much by your own hand.

What's interesting is that no matter the personal myth I embrace, I have a similar disposition. I'm not always determined, and my will can be weak, but when I commit, nobody will get in my way. I own my commitment and am personally responsible. The number of people who make excuses today and who believe they simply "deserve" something better by existence is outlandish. The balance of recognizing our shortcomings alongside our accomplishments should help reduce the mythical portions.

I appreciate you writing and sharing and offering up some vulnerability.

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I would tend to agree, Brian. It’s a cool exercise to try out.

And sure, we can smooth the edges of our personal myths, but also shouldn’t be afraid to own our hard work.

It’s good to acknowledge our positionality, and yes, you got privilege in many aspects, but many also get the same without then applying it.

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Bryn and Bryan, it really is a cool exercise to try, isn’t it? I tried applying this test (did I use this story to shape my actions, or is this story something I applied after-action) to many of my actions, and I usually came down on the side of the latter. But then, I had to acknowledge how consistently my actions fit a narrative … My mind gets a little rubbery working it all out! Thanks for commenting, both of you!

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Determined and stubborn, yes, but is that something I have a choice of being—meaning, did I decide it—or is it just who I am? And vice-versa, for those who give up? It’s a mind bend. (See my response to Bryn, too.)

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Uh oh, this is what happens when you retire and have too much thinking time. 😉

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So bloody true! In terms of hours of thinking time, this piece probably takes the prize. And all for what? Banging my head against the wall like Charlie Brown.

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I guess the alternative is you go back to work and people keep pulling the football out from under you when you go to kick it.

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Mar 31Liked by Tom Pendergast

Anyone seeking to create a personal myth for public consumption needs to plan for posterity, and

dress self-consciously like a hero, and as you say: "those photos would have been in the myth piece …" but they actually make you look rather like any other capable and normal middle-class scrambler on a typical and blissful sunny day in the hills, I'm afraid! And nothing wrong with that at all - I lost too many of my heroes who took caving and mountaineering far too seriously.

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It’s funny that you put it that way, because I was thinking that I didn’t have any pictures that depicted me at the point where my commitment to my own vulnerability put me in harm’s way: nobody is taking a picture right at that moment. Luckily “that guy” also had a very strong commitment to coming down from the mountain as well as going up.

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Apr 1·edited Apr 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

Yes, the average but capable climber or pothole explorer in their 20's - way back when film came in rolls - simply didn't have the time, the money, the expertise or the rucksack space to carry a camera anyway. I spent 2 months in Papua New guinea and misered out two 36 frame rolls on a borrowed camera. Its hard to take decent shots either in the jungle or in caves, as well.

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I really enjoyed reading this. Thought provoking re the familial / personal myths. I did a Sapolsky rabbit hole quickly and have a presentation of his set up to watch. Interesting stuff, I am confused enough in a nice way about the cosmos and the meaning of it all.........maybe thats how I am meant to be............am i choosing.......mind altering stuff without a substance LOL. Thank you Tom.

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The Sapolsky rabbit hole is pretty interesting, isn’t it? What I think is sow interesting is how committed he is to the idea that he has no free will, and yet how hard it is for him to live like he knows it. I’ve been playing with what it is like to think this way, and to acknowledge that other people always live this way—that’s the funky part. It is easier to forgive those who irritate you if you allow that they simply couldn’t help being who they are. Let me know what you find out.

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The idea of a personal myth first entered my life in early recovery. The person that I thought I was had been sickened and hidden by what I chose to fuel myself with. It took me years to have any confidence that that woman was still there. It took me going back to feeling like a child in so many ways before I realized the impact that my story had on my life. Now, more than ever I believe in choice over happen stance in many things. I believe knowledge is the key to those choices. Yet it is most often by luck or devine design that an individual ends up with people in their lives who can help provide the spark to pursue that knowledge.

Thank you for writing, this was a pleasure to read. And your family history sounds really intriguing, I’m so glad that you had such an opportunity to learn about your family’s story! Thank you for sharing a a bit of it with us!

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Thanks Jessica. It really is interesting how powerful the stories we elect to tell ourselves about ourselves are. I just haven’t quite figured out how capable we are of choosing those stories.

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It’s hard to tell, I guess. It’s really is. I suppose I should say that now more than ever I HOPE that choice champions life happening To us. My goals are to equip my children with knowledge and a passionate sense of the importance of choice. So that they walk through life with confidence of convictions and know the cost and benefit of choice. I have to believe it makes a difference.

Life happens no matter what, right? Sometimes we can’t avoid obstacles. We can’t choose the river we were born in. We can still steer the boat.

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That last bit especially, yes (though I still wonder, when we steer the boat, are we actually consciously choosing in that moment or are we simply acting upon the weight of genetics and past influences? I guess the two aren't irreconcilable). It's really interesting to think about this "free will" debate when it comes to raising kids, because we parents are certainly responsible for creating the environment in which kids realize their destinies, even though two kids growing up in the same environment will inevitably turn out different. I appreciate your honest reflections here Jessica.

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And I appreciate your conversation, Tom!

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Tom,

I enjoyed this post. Like anything else, we all have our own definitions of what a personal myth may be. For me, it's a narrative that accomplishes a few things. it places myself as the protagonist of the story, it creates a narrative out of the events of my life, and it helps to convince me that the decisions I've made were "for the best."

In testing my myth I concluded that there were embellishments and leaps of faith if not logic to all aspects of my myth, but in the end I actually incorporated the fact that i was willing to test my myth into my myth itself. That I was self-aware enough and strong enough to handle the truth that there were holes in my myth.

Thanks for making me think again about what I wrote and for sharing your perspective.

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Yes, I think you’re right: there’s not hard-and-fast definition of a personal myth, so we all make it what we will. For me this work was similar to elements of a meditation practice I’ve tried, where you try to locate the self, and find it very difficult. I think this has been very instructive for my approach to storytelling … it makes me much more conscious of the story.

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Apr 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

I fear you have fallen into a trap that is impossible to avoid when crafting or tracing any personal myth, Nature vs Nurture.

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Oh boy, that's an intriguing comment! I don't think of it as a trap so much as an essential conundrum of being human: we are inherently limited in what we can know. I'd love to hear you say a bit more about the "trap this is impossible to avoid" part.

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Apr 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

I don't mean trap in any negative context but simply just that, an essential conundrum of being human, as you said, and one that I do not think there is an answer to. I very much think it is a journey that is more important than the destination situation. If you ask the question with the intent to find an answer then you are simply caught in a perpetual motion of thought. Be it nature vs nurture or the phrase the journey is more important than the destination, some truths have become apparent to humans for a very long time, yet we continue to rephrase these truths time and again. Who knows how old the phrase(destination over journey) is but I'm sure there was a different phrase with the same meaning before it. But I don't think we rephrase these truths because of conceit or ignorance. However, it becomes very important to form our myths.

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Yeah, I agree it’s one of the essential questions for sure. Thanks for engaging on this one.

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For you Tom, anytime.

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Apr 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

Thanks, Tom!

Always thought provoking.

I'm not sure about Sapolsky. I have him on my list thanks to you, so I'll give him a swing. We're all subject to incessant social engineering, trapped by jobs and responsibilities and slaves to our pathologies and habits (by the way, I was reminded of the book, "The Power of Habit", as I read your essay), so even if one does believe in something as ethereal as free will, it does raise the question of how much free will one actually has. Perhaps just considering the question of whether there is such a thing as free will (and I'm not sure any of us even share the same definition for it) is a sign that we might be fortunate enough to be able to exercise it ... every now and then. Or maybe free will is an illusion and it's simply our gut bacteria calling the shots.

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Give Sapolsky a shot and we’ll talk .. . It’s fascinating

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Apr 2Liked by Tom Pendergast

I've always thought we're very adept at rationalizing our past - whatever choice you make will end up being the "right" one for you because in hindsight, you'll construct the narrative positively. Not always and not everyone, but pretty close! It's not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose? But it should come with a healthy dose of introspection.

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A healthy dose of introspection indeed! That’s what this essay was for me. It involved me also chastising myself for believing my own “press clips,” taking credit when things worked out well and blowing off the failures. Sounds like you may be familiar with this approach?

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Apr 4Liked by Tom Pendergast

Definitely! But sometimes I think I'm overly critical of myself for failures and take everything a little too personally, self-flagellation comes a little to easy haha. Maybe one of our main challenges as humans is trying to thread that needle?

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Yeah, that's it. I had this gag in an early draft about the war that goes on between the two angels I have sitting on my shoulder, one saying, "Oh, you da man, your ass sucks canal water," and the other saying, "You're such an asshole and you're gonna die early." They're both right, I'm sure.

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This post is bringing so many things to mind! In my Evangelical days, I'd have said that much of life was predestined by God, that it was up to each of us to find the path God intended for us. I attributed much of my personal successes to following God, only to realize that instead of glory, my path was leading to suffering. Like you, later reflection made me question how much of my luck could be attributed to my good choices vs. privilege. Perhaps it's like those celebrities who believe in things like "The Secret" or the "Laws of Attraction" as a way to take credit for their lucky breaks.

I'm very curious to dive more into determinism. I've read a bit about brain injuries. It's amazing how often folks with memory loss repeat the same comments or conversation over and over--almost as if they were programmed to do so. But then again, I have a friend who underwent a procedure which gave her some short-term memory loss and now she hates a movie she used to love? Mysterious! As always, thanks for the ample food for thought.

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Gosh, yours would be an interesting life to test this out on, as you seem to have adopted one “myth” to guide part of your life, then consciously rejected that and chose another. I scarcely know what to say about that one! The first chapter alone of Sapolsky’s book may be interesting to you: he sums up his thinking pretty well, then dives into it at tortuous depth further into the book.

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I've read this piece twice now, and will read it again over the next few days. The first time I read it, I'd just got back from the pub in the early hours, and it resonated with me but I didn't know what I wanted to say in the comments.

The second time I read it, (right now), I'm sober, and noticed different parts of the narrative that I'd missed the first time, and it still resonates with me, and I still don't know yet what I want to say in the comments. Just that it's another thought-provoking piece you've put in front of me, and I'm all for it.

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It’s funny, Kris, cause I thought of you while writing this. Part of what I was coming to recognize is that my personal narrative is all a fictionalization/rationalization of actions I took without conscious intent … and if that’s the case, what is the gap between a personal essay and fiction? I thought it might be a lot of fun to lean harder into fiction in order to extract a bit more from my experience. I believe this is what you encouraged in your last exchange?

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"personal narrative is all a fictionalization/rationalization of actions I took without conscious intent" --- Exactly this!

For everything! Not just the secret autobiography we think we understand, nor the autobiography we sell to the world every day, but even in every conversation, exchange of ideas, disagreement/argument, all of it comes down to the same description. Ask anyone you've ever had a falling out, but preferably a falling out that happened some time ago and has had time for the dust to settle, to give you their version of events from that disagreement, and before long you're arguing again and probably even more intensely than during the initial altercation, because you realise that they still think that they were justified and you were the dick, and you still think that actually you were justified and they were the dick. We might put our hands up and say, "I shouldn't have said that. I regret my words. That was unfair of me," or whatever. But we'll still, deep inside, believe that whatever we did wrong was an effect rather than a cause.

Also, I envy your position of being able to share your own personal narrative in a public space. If I even sanitised mine by 90%, I'd still almost certainly lose my job. And the other 90%, I just couldn't tell anyway.

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I went off on a bit of a tangent there. What I wanted to say was, yes, write more fiction, because ultimately what makes any half-decent fiction half-decent, is that it's honest. You can play around in there and have great fun, manipulating characters and testing them and rewarding them and punishing them, etc... all of that stuff can be created in your imagination. But if at the base of it all there is some element that is true to you, the writer, then that will naturally show in the writing. That's what I believe anyway. I don't claim to be an authority on storytelling or narrative.

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Well, it was a fun tangent anyway! That whole bit about going back to someone you had a falling out with was interesting. I think I've only tried it with my wife and we manage to make it work, but we're fucking committed as hell, and we've kind of agreed that we've both been shits and all we can do now is try not to be again. Always good to hear from you.

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In reading this, I'm trying to understand what a personal myth is and what purpose it serves. It sounds like a collection of judgments (X happened because of Y), which I see as being sort-of a story, but not quite. It's an interesting exercise in figuring out your own beliefs about yourself, but I guess that's the point of doing it.

Also, despite the fact that everyone in that region says they go, "down the shore," I'm with you. I always said, "to the shore," too.

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I hopped on the “personal myth” idea after reading that piece I cited from David Wallace, but it got interesting for me when I really tried to dig into the idea of whether the stories I told myself about why I acted preceded my actions (thus guided them) or came after my actions (serving to explain them). It gets a little chicken-and-egg, of course, because once you tell yourself a story enough it starts to maybe influence how you act in the future …

As for “to the shore” … I hadn’t even thought about that regionalism. Up here in Washington, we do not use the article “the” to refer to freeways, as in “the 5” or “the 405,” which allows us to clearly identify Californians, who do. 😀

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Gosh, if you haven't seen it, I think you should really look at this week's newsletter from Elizabeth Gilbert. It's here:

https://open.substack.com/pub/elizabethgilbert/p/letters-from-love-with-special-guest-af2?r=3svpm&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

Oh? In Washington, you don't say "the?" I'm surprised, since it's the same coast.

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I’ll check it out. And yeah, no “the” from Washingtonians. Weird huh?

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I hope you like it. I think you'll at least find it interesting. It's sort of the same issue, but from a different angle.

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Ugh, I ran into the paywall! So it's a little hard to say. I know that what I've read in the past from Gilbert is a little "touchy feely" for me (believe it or not!).

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Oh really? That's weird about the paywall. I'm a free subscriber, and I've never had any issues.

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Apr 25Liked by Tom Pendergast

That is a great, honest post. Thanks for the link to Sapolsky.

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Mo, thank you ... honest it was! So much so that I hardly know what to write next. Hope you enjoy the Sapolsky ... though enjoy is hardly the word. He has certainly disrupted my thinking, but then that's a good thing I suppose.

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