The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Questioning How We Frame Reality
By: Joe Rigney
Let’s talk about framing. Not framing as in home construction, but framing as in the way we perceive reality. Framing refers to how we see things. In particular, it refers to the fact that, as human beings, we don’t merely see things; we see things as. If you see a bear, you don’t just see a bear. You see the bear as dangerous. When you see a sunset, you don’t just see the sunset; you see the sunset as beautiful. That’s what I mean by framing. We see things as.
And not just sight, but our other senses as well. We hear the buzzing of a fly as annoying. We hear the laughter of a child as delightful. We smell the aroma of cookies as pleasant. We taste and see that honey is good. Framing, then, has to do with the immediate and snap judgments we make about reality and its relation to us.
Our framing is not static. The child’s laughter that is delightful at one moment is a nuisance when you’re trying to get work done. The laughter is the same; the framing — your snap judgment — is different.
Let’s take another step. We’re always framing, and it’s good that we are. It’s what keeps us alive. Our snap judgments lead to snap reactions. The framing bear-as-dangerous is why you jump in the car and drive away when you see one. The speed of our snap judgments engages our snap reactions almost automatically. In fact, we might say that our snap judgments and snap reactions are not in our immediate control (though, as we’ll see, they are shaped over time by our choices and experiences).
As humans — with souls and bodies, hearts and minds, intellects and wills — our snap judgments are often incredibly complex. They don’t merely involve simple and straightforward judgments about dangerous bears and delightful laughter. Behind our framing lies a complex web of imagination, memory, narrative-framing, embodied experience, and our present expectations, desires, and fears. In short, because we are human, why we see things as we do is a complicated question.
More than simply being human, our fallibility and sinfulness complicate our framing. Because we are fallible, our framing can be mistaken. We might mistake a garden hose for a snake and unnecessarily panic. And because we are sinful, our snap reactions following our snap judgments are not always good. Your spouse makes an observation; you make a snap judgment — comment-as-insult — and you react with your own insulting comment, and the situation escalates. You see the two places you could go wrong: Was your snap judgment correct? And was your snap reaction appropriate?
Our Chosen Stories
We can think of many other examples. Was that question from your coworker simply a request for information? Or was it a subtle shot at your ignorance? Your friends go out one night and don’t invite you. Did they simply forget or intentionally leave you out? Snap judgment, snap reaction.
And now we can see how our framing — and the snap reactions that flow from it — sets us on a path.
They didn’t invite me. They intentionally left me out. They don’t want to be around me. They’ve rejected me as their friend. I’ll show them.
With every judgment, we add a corresponding reaction, which together make the frame sturdier. Our experience and our choices, our memories and our imaginations, the stories we tell ourselves and the things that happen to us — all of these work together to shape and reshape our framing.
Notice How You Frame
What then should we do?
First, we ought to be curious about our own framing. I reacted because I made a snap judgment. Why did I make that judgment? And was that an appropriate reaction? Growing in self-awareness is crucial if we are to frame the world rightly. Our reactions are tied to our framing, and both often reveal subtle assumptions that we may not even be fully aware of. C.S. Lewis describes just this sort of dynamic in The Screwtape Letters.
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. (111)
Note the snap reactions: anger and ill-temper. Note that what produces them is a snap judgment: misfortune conceived as injury. That’s the framing: hardship as violation of a claim. What assumption is revealed by this snap judgment and snap reaction? Screwtape continues.
Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear.
Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption “My time is my own.” (111–12)
There is the assumption, the pattern, beneath the snap judgment — “My time is my own.” Curiosity about our reaction leads us to awareness of our judgment and the revealing of our (false) assumption. Thus, reframing our view of our time becomes essential in shaping us in a more humble and godly way.
Notice How Others Frame
Second, be curious about the framing of others. My spouse or child or friend reacted strongly because they made a snap judgment about me. Why did they do so? Does their snap judgment fit a real pattern I display? And rather than escalating the situation with my own snap reaction, how can I love them through it?
Again, Lewis describes how important such self-reflection is in our closest relationships. Listen to Screwtape’s strategy for provoking our snap judgments and snap reactions in our domestic lives.
When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it.
Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy — if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed. (13)
Again, note the way that our reactions and judgments reveal improbable assumptions. Our awareness of such facts allows us to be curious and compassionate toward our family and friends and, Lord willing, love them more wisely.
Be Transformed by Scripture
Third, mind the patterns that shape your framing. Paul says it clearly in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world.” In other words, don’t frame reality the way that the world frames reality. Its pattern is not to be our pattern. Instead, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is why we read the Scriptures and seek God in prayer and worship with God’s people — so that our minds can be renewed and we frame reality the way God does.
Finally, marvel at the amazing reframing that God has worked in us in our view of Christ. At one time, our frame was darkened and blind. We saw Christ as a stumbling block and foolishness. Christ-as-ugly, Christ-as-dull, Christ-as-trivial — that was our frame.
But then, the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” shone in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). He called us from darkness to light and reframed Jesus for us. Now we see Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God. Through the miracle of the new birth, we see Jesus differently. Christ-as-glorious. Jesus-as-worthy. This is the frame of frames, the pattern that transforms us from one degree of glory to another.