365 Grateful: The Case of Brian Williams


The case of Brian Williams, the tarnished star of NBC news, is intriguing to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, especially after reading an article on CNN (4/8/15) emerging from a story in the April 2015 Vanity Fair magazine. And not for the reasons you’d think.

The CNN article explored the Williams situation from the angle of how NBC executives and Williams handled it, but that’s not what I find particularly compelling. It’s an ancillary thread that piques my interest. Let me cherry pick a few items from that news article:

  •  “…frustrated by Williams’ ‘inability to explain himself.’ The anchor ‘appeared shell-shocked’ … rendering him unable to respond effectively.”
  •  “… Over the years, his recounting of the (Iraq war) mission turned more dramatic.”
  •  “… sources … say Williams had a hard time acknowledging the scope of the situation, even as questions began coming up about other past stories he had covered.”

I’m not so concerned, really, with how the industry handles it. That’s their call, not mine. What fascinates me is how we all express such disappointment in Williams’ story. He is, after all, a journalist who is supposed to report the news, not tell us stories, right?

Of course, that distinction – reporting news vs. telling stories – has long been in the process of blurring. Does anyone really think the news presented by any given news organization, with few exceptions, is pure and unadulterated? News organizations today tend to cater less to providing the news and more to maintaining ratings (and influencing voters).

But I digress. Here’s my take:

Williams has done nothing more than you and I routinely do. He’s just done it very publicly, while sitting in a position that at one time signified objectivity and truth. I say “at one time signified” because, well, journalists are human, and humans really aren’t particularly capable of being fully objective and truthful. Bear with me.

See, we are all storytellers. It’s the way humans are wired. In everyday life we – you and I – craft our own stories. We assume things. We guess about details. If we don’t understand something or someone, our unconscious mind offers rich fodder of past experiences, judgments, and thoughts to help us make sense of it – but those aren’t facts. They’re conclusions from many sources.

Tammy Lenski, mediator and author of The Conflict Pivot, notes that our first telling of a story about some situation we’ve been in (say, a helicopter in the Iraq war), is when our account begins to take shape. As we tell it again and again and again, it begins to shift a little here and bend a little there. We add our own spin, our own interpretation. We incorporate and strengthen parts that resonate with listeners. We emphasize this part and drop the parts that don’t fit so well. This is not really a conscious thing – it’s a natural progression. Our story is a living, breathing thing – and it’s nothing like the footage we see on screens that captures most (but not every) fact.

And, really, that factual footage viewed from slightly different vantage points offers different sets of facts. After all, the front of the widget offers different factual information from the front as it does from the back or the right or the left. So I offer the thought that even factual footage is fundamentally flawed because it is one-dimensional. But there I go, digressing again.

Lenski goes on to point out that, as we continue to tell our stories, they feel more certain and more true – and we don’t realize it’s happening. There’s a reason for it, of course: neural pathways in the brain. The more we use a specific path, the more defined it becomes, the stronger the memory. We become so sure that we consider it to be THE truth, even though it’s really only OUR truth – and one of MANY truths. Consider this when reading about legal cases that rest on a single eyewitness’s account.

My coach training posits this ground rule for every group session: “everyone is right – only partially.” In other words, we each have a piece of the truth, but no one has the whole truth.

So here’s an interesting fact about memory – when we recall memories, we automatically change them. Here’s how psychologist and author Jeremy Dean (psyblog.co.uk) puts it:

“Just by recalling a memory, it becomes stronger in comparison to other memories. … Say you think back to one particular birthday from childhood and you recall getting a Lego spaceship. Each time you recall that fact, the other things you got for your birthday that day become weaker in comparison. The process of recall, then, is actually actively constructing the past, or at least the parts of your past that you can remember. … This raises the fascinating idea that effectively we create ourselves by choosing which memories to recall.”

Think of it this way: When we recall a memory, we not only call up what we most recently stored, but we also combine new information with that original memory (maybe something we’ve read, experiences we’ve had, judgments we’ve since made). That combining of new with old tweaks the original to fit the new data and subtly recreates our story, which the brain promptly stores to replace the original. The next time we pull that memory back, those new details are embedded, and our objective recall is none the wiser. The process continues each time we pull out that objective memory: our truth.

As Lenski writes, “it would be more useful, then, to think of memory like a perpetually edited video that shares only some data with the original recording.”

I think of it like auto-save on my computer. Say I’m working on a document. It periodically helps me out by saving my work as I write. If I don’t consciously do something to save the new work as a different document, the original is lost, fundamentally changed. If I work on this document for many years – as we do when telling the story of a major event in our lives – the current version will be quite different from the original – but to me, it’s “God’s honest truth.”

So think about this.

How often has Williams recounted his story? Plenty. If each re-telling adds a detail here or there and solidifies into a newly edited version, should we be surprised that, as one source was quoted, it turned more dramatic? Given the traumatic nature of this specific memory for Williams, the accounts of his appearing “shell-shocked” and having “a hard time acknowledging the scope of the situation” weren’t signs of lying, but signs of the normal progression of memory that ALL of us experience. Yes, even journalists who are tasked with maintaining objectivity and speaking truth.

Consider stories of your own – favorites you like to tell – if you compared your story today with a video from the actual event, how far would it have strayed? Far more than you realize, but because of those pesky neural pathways, you would swear it’s just how it happened. Remember, we all only have a piece of the truth, and we’re all creating our own stories and writing our own scripts.

So I don’t see how we can truly cast stones at Brian Williams here, because we might as well cast those stones at ourselves, too.

365 Grateful: Sprinter’s Just Fine For a While

365 - 03-29-2015So here I am, leaning against the door jamb with a cup of cold caffeine that’s helping my eyes stay open on this chilly “Sprinter” morning.*  That’s the unofficial season between winter and spring, when the two season siblings have their only chance to catch up, to share moments together, to bring each other up to date on their lives before Winter goes on holiday and Spring gets to work.

Out of the corner of my eye, the bird of spring itself — a cheery red-breasted Robin — lands on the fence rail. A second follows, then a third. Each bird alights, one by one, in neighboring sections. It’s almost as though they’re queuing up like thoroughbreds at the gate, waiting for an official signal, for Winter to diminish and Spring to bust forth.

Like everyone, I’m ready for warmth to seep into my bones, for sun and light to flood my world, and for chlorophyll factories to gear up for work. but I’ve appreciated the beauty and rest of Winter, too. At the moment, this day is more wintry than springlike, except for three Robin Red-Breasts sitting on the fence out back.

I’m grateful for the warmth of those cheery birds who assure me that, yes, spring is here, but be patient. She’s companionable, and  Winter’s precious to her … just as precious as she is to Winter. So I’m good with that, with allowing time for the siblings to enjoy one another’s company for a bit. After all, the Robins are here. That’s good enough for me.

* Thanks, Jon Six, for introducing that word to me. It’s so very appropriate.


365 Grateful: The Storytelling Tree

365 - 03-26-2015So, spring’s here, officially at least, and the sun’s been out without rain for a few days, which means the grassy road up the hillside beside our house is walkable. I haven’t been there yet, so I decide to hoof it to the top, where I spy the perfect image of a Storytelling Tree. You know the kind: wonderfully gnarled and ancient with a hollowed out trunk that just might house a storytelling dwarf or elf or leprechaun.

In a heartbeat I hear ghost stories, tales of mystery and harvest told beneath spreading autumn branches. Stories of rest, reflection, transition and, yes, even death, echoing underneath stark, barren limbs. Whispers of birth and rebirth, life and passion, origins, history, and truths unfolding along with bright, neon-green spring finery. And then come tales of adventure, purpose and the passage of everyday life lilting out amidst a summer cloak of green.

Yeah. It’s that kind of tree. Breathtaking and filled with meanings.

While I stand here reveling in the sight catching my breath from the climb on this brilliantly blue-skyed spring day, my mind taps politely behind my eyes as if to say, “Hey! I brought you up here to see this tree because it reminds you of something you know about yourself. You’re a storyteller at heart, and in all your scheming and planning and worrying about the future you keep forgetting this. Don’t forget. Nurture that purpose. Do it. Call the circle. Step into that community.”

Hmmm. I guess when a quantum flirt like that grabs you by the shoelaces and forces you to walk up a steep hill to see a vivid reminder of what you say fills you with purpose … well, you’d best listen. Grateful.

365 Grateful: With Spring so Close, Can Summer be Far?

365 - 03-19-2015These past few squinty-eyed days of sunshine warm upon my face and bright upon my corneas have awakened the slumbering child within. I know this because as I passed by the bookshelf (long overdue for organizing and straightening of the few books I have saved from my wintertime purging), my eye fell upon the one book that is a ritual of summer for me — Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

Such a marvelous book chock full of great wisdom and insight. Here is a masterpiece that captures childhood using mere ink and paper. What a feat!

I read it, faithfully, every year at the cusp of summer. June 21. Never before … because it is a summer’s tale, filled with the awesome, blossoming awareness of life.

Already my fingers itch to open the pages — well worn, yellowed, and in places tattered — and begin to read. But wait I will, because summer is scarcely a glimmer on the horizon and this book, well, it simply can’t be read until summer takes over her duties.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for this early spring reminder of what’s coming. That, and a vision — for just a brief moment — of fresh grass and the busy hum of bees, the twittering of birds and the sharp laughter of children. May each of them discover for themselves this year the wonder of realizing “I am alive.”

So, go buy the book already. Place it on your bedside table. Let it call to you and tempt you and tease you with the pages of summer it holds safely between its covers. And on June 21, pick it up and read it. I’ll join you.

365 Grateful: and the worm turns

365 - 03-06-2015I wake up to this view of the 2015 Crow Moon completing its transit across the sky, across my sky. And I am grateful for this reminder that all things cycle, soften, evolve. The worm turns the soil, the crow heralds spring, life moves inexorably forward. Past? Future? Not really. Just the present. We stretch fully into each day, breathe in each moment, and pass steadily, easily through time. To me, there’s no other option than to be fully present in the moment, not so lost in past regrets or memories and not so caught up in future worries or goals. Just the present. Just the moment.

365 Grateful: to get somewhere, you have to leap

365 - 03-05-2015Yeah, here’s how it goes. I want to be over there. I’m over here. Over there might be a state of mind or a physical place or an activity. It doesn’t matter. When I’m over here, over there seems like it’s a chasm away. So I grumble around about not being there or having that or getting anywhere or being stuck, stymied, and held back.

Exactly. I don’t always get it at first. I chalk that up to human nature, but it’s pretty much a matter of my perspective and my attitude. Because, really? If I want to cross that chasm, generally what’s required is a leap … of faith. And that might mean faith in my ability, in my choice, in my desire, in my confidence, in the chance of success … all that stuff wrapped up into one big ol’ leap.

So when we traveled to Death Valley (amazing place, that!) back in 2009 with our friends, Lem and Patty, that concept of taking the leap, well, leaped out at me. Figuratively speaking, of course. Because that land is so amazingly inhospitable yet so beautiful and challenging, I couldn’t imagine those prospectors and early frontiersmen not looking down at the salt flats and thinking, “I’m stuck here, but there is where I want to be. Look at all of these obstacles; I don’t know if I’m up for that trek, but I need — I WANT — to be there. So, I’m just gonna go for it.”

It was a leap of faith of the tallest order. And, man, am I ever grateful to have experienced that place, and stretched my mind as well as my body there. Because I started to learn to love the “leap.”

In our lives, where Death Valleys are what stand between where we are today and where we want to be, those leaps of faith propel us forward.

  • “I want to start my own business, but I’ve never understood the business world.”
  • “I want a better relationship with my family, but fighting is what we do best.”
  • “I’m not happy in my marriage, but the alternative is wicked scary.”
  • “I want to save the planet, but how can I possibly make a difference?”

Oh, those are leaps of faith. Learn to love them!