I’ve been thinking about Ameila Earhart lately. Better said, I’ve been thinking about the story of Amelia Earhart lately.
The story of this powerhouse record-holder has captivated me for years; I read her biographies, admired her moxie, and toyed with naming my daughter Amelia as a constant reminder that she could chart her own path.
Bright and capable, Amelia lived her life on her own terms. She had a string of careers before finding her calling, and a string of romances to match. When she married, she assured her husband in writing she expected no old-fashioned faithfulness, and trusted he felt the same way. She endorsed products at a dizzying speed, building a powerful personal brand long before it became a buzz phrase. Then, when she was nearly 40, she took off with her navigator for a spin around the world and was never heard from again.
She drowned, of course. Dropped out of the sky and off of the map and into the ocean.
Or maybe not.
Eighty years later, a different story is emerging. There is photographic evidence she may have been captured by the Japanese. The remains of a shoe and, heart-achingly, a tub of facial cream found on a deserted island suggest she may have survived a wreck and been stranded.
What’s more surprising to me than the mounting evidence that something else happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator is that the evidence isn’t new. The photograph was taken and logged decades ago, and quickly forgotten in storage. The remains were also found and forgotten. Experts have known of this evidence for years, discussed and debated it internationally, and collectively dismissed it.
What fascinates me about the story of Amelia Earhart now is what it says about how we make meaning of the world around us.
We are meaning-making machines, we humans. We take in literally mind-boggling amounts of data every day, from the moment we wake up to long after we drift of to sleep. We can’t possibly process everything we see. We are trained to sort through what we see, discarding the inconsequential and taking in the important. But what’s important? How does our exhausted and overwhelmed brain decide what to keep and what to throw away?
We take in information that is consistent with our story and worldview and reject what isn’t.
What’s important is different to each of us, and that affects what we see. You don’t know how many Buick Enclaves you passed on the way to work today unless you just bought one yourself (I saw four, and yes, we sold the SUV and are now eighty and driving a Buick). When you’re pregnant, suddenly everyone else is too. Car seat recalls dominate the news until your children are old enough to buckle in unboosted. We see what matters to us in that moment.
The story of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is a perfect example of this on a grand level. We agree to believe that Amelia crashed in the ocean and drowned; it was the first and most circulated story. Because of this, the story the locals told for years of the female Caucasian living in Japanese captivity fell on deaf ears. The human remains on the island must belong to a male native, even though their measurements suggest a female of European descent.
Stories make life simpler.
The stories I told myself about my marriage–that all marriages required work, that love wasn’t a fairytale, that most husbands didn’t truly shoulder half the load of a family–made it easier to avoid the nagging thought that death wouldn’t be what parted us. The story I told myself about my new ex–that he wouldn’t be able to effectively manage the demands of 50/50 custody–made it less painful to think about only having my children half the time. The long-ago story of little Kate as the bookworm and last-picked for team sports made avoiding regular exercise easy.
The truth is, those stories both served and limited me.
It took me logging a 10-mile training run in Central Park before I began to believe I might actually complete the half-marathon I had impulsively registered for. Because I didn’t think Billy could shoulder the load of parenting full-time on his weeks, I inadvertently sabotaged our coparenting efforts. I left my marriage years after it actually ended, clinging to the remains of what was instead of looking curiously at the promise of what could be.
We all have stories.
My sister, an accomplished actress and terrific mom, believes she is uncommonly bad at math. My coworker labels her ex a narcissist, sure that the only reason he wants to share custody of their children is to be seen as a good father. My incredibly talented friend won a national writing award recently, in recognition of the magic she makes while sitting at her keyboard, and chalked it up to beginner’s luck. She’s not a writer after all, just an IT professional who writes on the side.
These stories serve and limit us and become self-perpetuating.
My friend with the narcissist ex will only see his actions through that lens. She will miss the way he pauses to stroke their daughter’s hair on the sidelines of the soccer field. She won’t see how their son’s face lights up when he tells his dad about the field trip. His attempts to coparent, texting her kindly on Mother’s Day and attending the parent-teacher conference, are rejected as empty showmanship rather than the sincere efforts of a man finding his footing in a new reality.
The “truth” becomes irrelevant. The ex may or may not be a narcissist. Your stepchild may or may not deeply dislike you. I may or may not have the physical capability of an athlete. Amelia may or may not have died in the ocean. The rumor whispered at the PTA may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the story we tell ourselves, how that story colors the lens through which we see the world, and what we do or don’t do next.
I am taking in decades old information about a story I know well, and it is shifting how I think about Amelia and her navigator and the morning she may or may not have used the last bit of her face cream on a deserted island. More importantly, Amelia’s story, adjusted for information we so readily discarded for years, is making me think about what stories I still tell myself.
What information am I missing because it doesn’t match a story I know by heart? What is limiting my perspective? What could I notice about what I am failing to notice?
How is the story I tell myself shaping my reality?
What if I told myself a new story?