Truer than Literal
I often joke (the way you do about things that aren’t jokes at all but are absolutely true) the two belief systems I grew up within were Judaism and, ever so slightly beneath that, Star Trek.
I say two; really, I experienced them as a continuum. Not because Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was Jewish, or even because the symbolism of the Vulcan salute Leonard Nimoy created for his character, Mr Spock, was drawn from having seen the shape of the Hebrew letter shin formed with the hand as part of an orthodox service when he was a child. It was because Star Trek – while not literally, presently real – was about potential. Here was an imagined version of humanity in which we had survived the worst things about ourselves. We had become a force in the universe not for self-destruction but for exploration, outward and inward. We were motivated not by personal gain but by personal betterment, connection, and curiosity. That was the agenda from which we boldly went where we hadn’t been before. It was not a statement of who we were, but who we had it in us to be.
I was introduced to Star Trek by my researcher turned science teacher mother as a toddler. At the time, we lived with my grandfather: a solicitor during the week; minister of Greenford Synagogue (where we regularly joined him) at weekends. Religion and science never seemed at odds in my life; they were different languages for of expressing gratitude for and interest in that life. It was the metaphorical rather than literal that – I was shown if never told – informed how we lived our lives.
Then, in my late teens, I heard a friend had been told by the religious community he grew up in that he wasn’t a real Christian because he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the stories.
It’s no exaggeration (though figuratively rather than literally true) to say this blew my mind. This insistence on literal belief felt like the opposite not only of my belief system but of what I’d felt (believed?) a belief system was for.
To me, the importance of telling stories wasn’t insisting they’d happened but asking what they might help us learn or better understand about ourselves. As far as I was concerned, my friends in storylines at Cheder (Saturday School), literature and Star Trek alike were a truer kind of truth than the literal. What made me Jewish was culture, connection, community, through shared narrative. It was also what was making me a writer. Music, literature, intellectual argument on everything up to and including the existence – though never the significance – of God were as fundamental as prayer. Probably more so. It was what we did with the stories that mattered.
On Wednesday night my family (human and canine) celebrated the first night of Passover. Jewish tradition asks us to recount the story of Exodus from slavery as if we – our literal selves rather than our ancestors – had personally experienced slavery, and coming out of slavery into freedom. The story does not present freedom as easy. It’s terrifying, overwhelming and often dangerous. Our ancestors don’t know how to deal with it. Personal responsibility was less appealing than creating false idols to worship, outsourcing your decision-making to those. Believing in an invisible God and a moral code that put onus on personal responsibility was an unarguably harder path. “Free” was often the last thing freedom felt like. Quite honestly, I never felt less free than when, as a child, I was not allowed to eat leavened bread for the Passover week. As an adult, now it’s my decision and not my family’s, the symbolism of not eating leavened bread is more important to me than it ever was.
Nothing makes me feel more aware of the freedom I do have than exercising choice. At the worst times in my life, I too tried to outsource my freedom by prioritising what I thought others wanted from me, looking for solace in losing myself in this way rather than looking for it in finding out who I was. That changed through psychotherapy, through coaching, through writing and through learning about writing, all of which were through connection and community. I became a fuller version of the potential of who I always was and, gradually, dared to be. It is in exercising freedom, which did mean choosing a harder path, we appreciate in exercising our options and agency how very much freedom we have.
It's no coincidence that every area of my working life is about the power of non-literal stories.
Every writer knows that writing is not about where you get your ideas from: it’s the work you do on yourself so you can be there to transcribe the ideas when they arrive, encourage them rather than judge them, develop them rather than convince yourself they’re not any good. It’s in the stories you’ve been telling yourself about whether you deserve the writing time you say you’re trying to factor into your life. It’s about the stories you’ve been telling yourself of what a writing career looks like, whether the voices speaking against it in your emotional memory are your own.
We find the courage when we find the self-esteem to make our lives fit the writing time our writing needs from us. That’s why coaching isn’t just about the stories you make up on the page: it’s listening to the stories you’re already telling yourself, and how they can take you towards and not away from the potential of who you are and want to be.
Star Trek’s characters aren’t real in the literal sense. That does not stop them from continuing to teach me enormous amounts about who I am and who I can choose to be. Just as we (or my ancestors) didn’t have time for the bread to rise before we left slavery for freedom, we can know we do have time to be the full versions of ourselves now, to do what needs doing to become our true selves. Potential is a real thing. There are deeper truths that the literal and we have the freedom to reach for them.