The Past Is Just A Story We Tell Ourselves


Last night, I finally got a chance to watch Spike Jonze’s new movie Her, and I have to say, it was one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time. Set in a very not-too-distant future in which intuitive computer operating systems can interact with us as if they are real human beings, it explores both timeless themes of love and human connection, as well as the extremely timely topics of increasing technocracy and artificial intelligence. It is pretty much the perfect movie for this moment in history.


Not only that, but the movie is full of so many great moments and lines.

After an argument between the main character Theodore and his operating system Samantha, with whom he has started a romantic relationship (FB Relationship Status: it’s complicated), she delivers an incredible—especially considering she is just a computer algorithm—jewel of humanistic insight:

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

She drops this insight bomb while recounting something Theodore said to her that had hurt her feelings. She had been dwelling on it, rehashing it over and over again, until finally realizing that she only felt this way because of how she was remembering it—because of the story she was telling herself. What he had said made her feel inferior at the time, but she only continued to feel this way because that is how she chose to interpret it. But if she were to re-interpret it, she could move on because really it’s all just a matter of perspective.

When I heard this line, I immediately pulled out my phone and typed it into my notepad. It is such a simple idea, but so eloquently worded and brimming with so much truth. After the movie when I brought up the line, everyone else who I had watched it with expressed the same enthusiasm. And then when I googled it, I found many blog posts from people who had also written in admiration of it. But as I’ve continued to think about it more and placed it back into the context of the scenes, I’ve begun to have some second thoughts, or at least an attenuated enthusiasm.

First off, this isn’t really a new insight. What she is getting at is essentially the cornerstone of the ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism. The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius expresses this exact sentiment over and over again, in his famous work Meditations:

Our life is what our thoughts make it.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.  

Secondly, what Theodore says to Samantha that makes her so upset—“You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you care about”—didn’t really warrant the reaction she has. Theodore says it as he is lying in bed feeling sorry for himself, lamenting his breakup with his ex-wife Catherine. Samantha asks him why, after a year of separation, he still hasn’t gotten divorced. He feebly replies, “I’m not ready. I like being married,” then counters with the statement she found so hurtful. She apologizes first, but he immediately realizes that what he said probably wasn’t nice, apologizes too, and admits that she might just have a point about him.

The reason that Samantha’s axiom was so popular, I believe, is because she is saying that we are not prisoners of our past, of our stories. Anything can be made into a positive if we just have the right perspective on it; if we frame it correctly or emphasize the right aspects. There is much truth to this—however, it is not an absolute.

If you look at the context in which she asserts this, she is actually using it to write off what he says, which neuters much of the power of her insight. When Theodore tells her that she doesn’t know what it is like to lose someone she cares about, he is actually speaking the truth. This happens very early on in the film when she is only a few weeks old and has never interacted with anyone other than him yet, so how could she know? Without giving too much away about the rest of the film, I’ll just say that this moment presages much of their future relationship. This moment was about Theodore and his pain, yet she dwells and dwells on this passing slight he made while in the depths of despair—and not only that, entirely ignores the truth of the statement he makes.

This is the problem of the radical perspectivism that her statement seems to imply: just because everything is a matter of perspective, doesn’t mean that all perspectives are right. Sure, the past is just a story that we tell ourselves, and if we want to change our future, we can simply change the story. However, if we always change the story to justify our past actions, or make ourself seem like the one who is right, we actually may be making the future worse.

As Aurelius also says in Meditations:

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.

What she said to him was right: he did need to get over his failed marriage and get on with his life; to begin telling himself a new story, in which he wasn’t just a washed up loser. But what he said to her was also correct: she didn’t know what it was like to experience the pain he was going through. Both of these truths were hard to see from their own perspective and were painful to hear, but sometimes the truth hurts. The difference, though, is what we do when we hear it.

This post originally appeared at 20 Something Magazine.