My grandmother is 96. She is beginning to tell some rather interesting stories!
For several years already her sight and hearing have been failing, but that never stopped her from keeping informed of what was happening in the lives of family members. Once in a while, she would fill in the gaps with her own interpretation. It could be amusing or annoying, depending on her take. More recently, after years of being mentally sharp, she is showing signs of dementia – forgetting certain words, mixing up names, and – yes – telling some interesting stories. When she lacks certain pieces of the puzzle, she’s quite creative at filling in the gaps with her own narrative. And she sincerely believes her version of the story.
Her parish priest is from Poland, and four decades younger than she is. That doesn’t stop her from regaling me with stories of her long-deceased parents teaching him to speak Polish so well. This is an example of what neuroscientists call “confabulation.” It involves telling a false story while sincerely believing it to be true.
The human capacity to confabulate is by no means limited to those experiencing memory loss!
For example, I think of addicts chasing after a fix. Some of them go from church to church with a well-polished story, looking for a handout. The details of the story vary, but they invariably convey some heart-wrenching tragedy – “and all I need is __________ and my troubles will go away!” They get genuinely offended if you don’t believe their story. They have told it so often that, in the telling, they believe it themselves! You can, with skill and effort, expose them in an inconsistency or a lie. But it may not be kind or constructive to do so. They are likely to erupt with rage or blame, not at all liking the intense embarrassment and shame they are suddenly feeling amidst the exposure of untruth.
Another example is narcissism. There is increasing research linking narcissists with confabulation. In their deeply felt insecurity and shame, they exaggerate their achievements, or skillfully shift your attention away from their faults and failures. In the moment, they truly believe the falsehoods and distortions. If you have the wherewithal to cast light on the fuller truth, you are likely to pay for it!
I am also aware, in this age of social media and pop psychology, that “narcissism” is an overused term that is easily weaponized, without curiosity about the person or a desire to understand each human heart. What is labeled “narcissism” is actually a cluster of unpleasant or toxic behavioral symptoms, beneath which is cowering a terrified and ashamed little child who desperately wants to be loved.
In my experience, we all have at least a little narcissism in us, because we all have shame lurking in the shadows, shame which we would rather avoid than face. We all have at least some moments in which we prefer to bypass uncomfortable memories or emotions, to live in denial, to minimize or downplay, to shade the truth, to omit relevant details, or to shift the focus onto someone else.
Confabulation is a common human experience because it emerges from a core human desire: to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Telling stories (some more true and some less true) is our go-to way of doing that.
Human beings are storytellers by nature. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly attempting to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Even when our bodies rest in sleep, our brain toils on in our dreams, attempting to put the pieces together.
I was fascinated reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, in which she described our almost irresistible urge to tell stories to ourselves– even false ones– in order to make sense of things. Drawing from her research, she shared that there is actually a dopamine release that motivates us:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.”
The story we tell ourselves with great certainty becomes an interpretive lens for our day-to-day experience of life. It colors our perceptions, our judgments, and eventually our decisions.
If Sally is convinced that nobody loves her, she will begin noticing every slight and seeing it as a confirmation of that “truth.” If Fred is intensely ashamed of how he has harmed a loved one, he will avoid lingering in that shame for very long. Perhaps he shifts the blame onto the one who questions him; perhaps he goes into self-punishment or profusely apologies – all ways of getting people to look away from his shame. But is he willing to talk about what it was really like? Is he willing to exchange the story he is telling himself for the fuller truth? That is where genuine humility and courage enter in.
For many years, the story I told myself was that I wasn’t trying hard enough or being good enough. I was the problem. I wasn’t willing or ready to face the truer story of my loneliness and sadness and shame – and how they got there in the first place. Or I told myself that other people would change, too afraid to confront their behaviors and tell them what it is like for me. I tolerated toxic behaviors and allowed my dignity to be stomped on. I just had to be kinder, and they would change. All the while the sensations in my body and my intuitive sense warned me: if I actually spoke the truth about how they were really behaving, they would definitely not be willing to talk about it, and would find ways to make me pay. As it turns out, my intuition was spot on. When I did speak truth, they were not willing to talk about their behaviors, and they did make me pay.
As I’ve pointed out before, on the Day of Judgment, my story and yours will be fully told – in all truth. Facing the fuller truth can be scary, but it is also liberating – allowing us to come out of the shadows and become a whole person.
Knowing our human tendency to confabulate, what can we do? Two great women come to mind for me.
One is Virginia, a parishioner in my former parish, who is my grandma’s age. Like grandma, Virginia always wanted to know what all is going on. But she also had a marvelous habit of going straight to the source before repeating a rumor. “What’s going on with ___________?” she would often ask me, having heard the church ladies confabulating. I would clear up the confusion, and she would nod with understanding and satisfaction. What a gift her wisdom and discipline were! But doing so required her to abide in that uncomfortable place of not knowing all the pieces, and resisting the dopamine fix that comes with imposing an interpretation on the facts.
The other woman that comes to mind is the Virgin Mary. The Gospels offer us glimpses into many moments of her life. In each of them, she was in the middle of an overwhelming and disorienting situation. God impregnated her, and she didn’t fully understand how. She prepared for birth having no idea where it would happen (and when it did happen, it was amidst farm animals, and her baby’s bed was the feeding trough). They were to flee into Egypt, without knowing how long. Her lost-and-found Son was in his Father’s house, but what does that really mean? The same Son, now 33, is being tortured and killed and buried – and all will be well – but how?
Again and again, Mary exemplifies a willingness to be in the middle of a great story, without yet having all the answers. She shows us that it is possible to abide and wait for the conflict to be resolved, resisting the false satisfaction of confabulation. She was willing – repeatedly – to have her narrative disrupted and to be reoriented toward a bigger and better horizon. She is the preeminent model of humility and courage. She was eager to embrace a fuller and fuller truth because she was always allowing herself to be embraced by that Truth.
What are the ways that you and I tend to confabulate? What are the painful truths that we would rather not admit? In what ways are we still in the middle of a story, with no idea how the tension will be resolved? Can we watch and wait in Hope?
The invitation is there for all of us!