Telephone Game in your Head
When we were kids, or when we were adults and someone wanted to prove a point, we have all played a game called Telephone. Since we have all played it, we all know how it works: the leader says a sentence in the ear of the first person in line, often reading it from a paper, but not letting anyone see the written sentence. The first person repeats it to the second, and so on. You are not allowed to ask for clarification, or for the person to repeat it, so you will generally transmit a small error when you repeat the sentence, and over numerous transmissions these errors add up. When I played, there was almost always someone in the chain who thought it was funny or clever to intentionally garble the message, sometimes quite seriously. I never did this, I was very competitive, and always wanted to prove that I transmitted it perfectly. I often tried to find a way to prove that what I said was exactly what the person before me said. This is petty, of course, just like the boy (somehow it was always a boy) who changed “the cat in the hat shovels pink snow” into “Billy is a lesbian” just to see is Billy will repeat it.
What I realized earlier this week is that we often do this in our heads. We aren’t saying things out loud and depending on our ears to hear them on the first take, but we have thoughts that build on previous thoughts often without challenging them. Some of these thoughts are ones we hear a lot, even if we never speak them aloud: “I deserve failure” “I deserve better than the world gives me, but am always cheated” “People can’t be trusted” “Those people can’t be trusted” I could go on, but I don’t want to guess what yours are, and I’m not exploring what mine are in this exercise. That was a list of statements I hear from others that make me angry because of their obvious falsehood, by the way.
What we do with these automatic statements is change our experiences, and alter the narrative of our life. Most of the time, it’s like I was in the game: we try to sincerely and accurately move the story through, honestly and unchanged. We take pride in having not misremembered anything, and we believe that our interpretation (a more acceptable word for storytelling) of the facts is the most reasonable or accurate one. What we don’t notice is that every time we review the experience, we fine-tune the data, just like a sentence going through a telephone game.
Sometimes, though, we have something like the clever comedian kid pop up. He just can’t leave it alone. He’s not just unconsciously refining the facts, he’s blowing them out of the water. These would be thoughts like the ones mentioned above, that are so strong as to approach values, but not quite get there. They are Ego. They are the self-concepts or world-concepts that we have chosen over the years to help us protect ourselves from the disorder of a random world. They often are mistaken. Experience has shown that they are more likely to be wrong than right, but they are often only a little wrong, so we still use them because they work, like using a 13mm wrench on a ½ inch bolt. It will turn it, but over time it will destroy the bolt, rounding the corners so that no wrench will work.
I’m not sure whether the clever kid does more damage than the slow, less visible wearing of our experiences as we change what we know with stories, but there is one significant difference. We can take control and ownership of the kid, effectively making him a grownup. Now, this grownup has seen the paper on which the original sentence was written, but it has been a while. Our adult self, though, can still throw the analysis back to being closer to what really happened, and can also remind us that it’s been a while since he saw the original, so even his memory is suspect, though it has been through less filtering and is likely to be more correct than anything else we have access to. If we are honest with ourselves, this will allow us to come from a position of power, because we will know better what is really going on, and we will be able to have some ability to judge how well we know.
The end of the paradigm shift, then, is that we play the telephone game in our heads every time we replay a memory, and by being brutally honest with ourselves, neither giving ourselves a pass nor beating ourselves up, we are able to have someone who has seen the original sentence whisper to the last person in line, circumventing the damage that comes from all the repetitions. This requires giving up much of our ego and trusting that in place of that 13mm wrench, we will find the ½ inch wrench we need for the problem of today. This trust is never misplaced. I am confident of that.