It’s said that human beings can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but only about 30 seconds without finding meaning in something. Creating stories is what we naturally do. Stories are not the problem; we are hard-wired for them. It’s how we make sense of everyone and everything in them that matters—and that we can change.

But we live in the stories we create. And so the challenge, therefore, is to create stories that work for us, instead of against us, and to write the stories of our lives in ways that are empowering, strength-based and growth-oriented, instead of victim-based, dis-empowering and shame-based.

Coming Into a State of Coherence

The first stories we tell about ourselves form what is referred to as “the narrative arc of our lives.” Aaron Antonovsky, one of the pioneers of medical sociology, was able to correlate the connection between having a strong sense of narrative coherence and greater happiness, health, resilience and motivation to take positive action. Thus, coherence is not just a “nicety”; in fact, our very well-being depends on it. Says Antonovsky, three elements contribute to a strong sense of coherence:

  1. Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
  2. Manageability. I can cope with what has happened (or is happening) in my life. It’s not easy, but I can summon the internal and external resources I need to manage my life.
  3. Meaningfulness. I have grown or learned (or have the potential to) as a result of my experiences. The challenges I face are worth addressing.

Vayigash is a perfect example of what is possible when one is in a state of “coherence.” The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax with one of the most dramatic moments in biblical narrative. In reaction to Joseph’s feigned refusal to release Benjamin, Yehuda begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s stead, pleading that the loss of another son—this son—would kill his father, Jacob.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph bursts out revealing his true identity, stating, Ani Yosef: “I am Joseph!” The brothers are shocked and terrified. Before them stands the complete refutation of their actions, against which they are utterly defenseless. As the Viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could have them imprisoned or worse, but miraculously, he bears the brothers no ill will. Not only is Joseph not punitive, but he even comforts his brothers, stripping them of any power or hold they thought they ever had over his fate.

The Bigger Picture

For underneath the surface drama of the story—and the intentions and motives of the brothers—lies an Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent G‑d, who was orchestrating events to fulfill a Divine Plan. This belief in the bigger picture and deeper meaning of otherwise meaningless and tragic events gave Joseph a sense of purpose, helping him to manage and cope with his ordeals and remain spiritually, emotionally and mentally intact. How else could he emerge from 12 years in an Egyptian prison with all of his wits about him, so as to be promoted to Viceroy to Egypt on the spot!

When he finally saw his brothers, his story “made sense,” became “comprehensible,” and Joseph was able to see that he had narrated it in a way that was empowering. Rather than becoming a victim, and being consumed with hatred and bitterness, Joseph was filled with strength and grace.

Telling a New Story

The purpose of a story is much deeper than the mere telling of events. Looking below the storyline of “what happened” to get at “what the story was about” affords us a new perspective. When we look at the painful stories of our past and see how we nevertheless coped and managed, as well as how we were able to transmute suffering into growth, then the stories of our lives can take on new meanings—meanings that can even make some overall sense. This awareness of coherence then gives us the strength and resilience to deal with the struggles and challenges of our present.

And that fills us with well-being, optimism and possibility. Our challenge is to stop telling stories that keep us stuck in blame. Like Joseph, we can compose the narratives of our past in ways that are empowering, and in so doing, we can use our past to inspire our present and inform a better future. When we can look back at the events of our past and embrace them for being the perfect training ground for who we are today, then we can begin to be the authors of our own lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all have stories we create that we think of as objective truth. Recall a time when someone wronged you, and you felt betrayed. Now, retell that story to yourself but exonerate that person. Say or write it in a way where the person was not trying to hurt you and was unaware that he/she was doing so. Make this person innocent in your new version. Then respond to the following: How does this new story make you feel? How do you now feel about this person?
  2. Write down three situations when you felt you successfully overcame a difficulty. What qualities came out of you in those situations that helped you be successful (i.e., patience, empathy, self-awareness, etc.)?
  3. Write down a challenge you are facing right now. Think about the qualities that you just listed and you know you are capable of tapping into. Which of these will help you through your current challenge? How can you implement it/them to work through what you are dealing with?