I’ve been thinking a lot about “story,” what with all of this WRITING and what-not, and about the effect we have on narrative, and how narrative affects us.
The new History Channel special America: the Story of Us debuted Sunday night and it looked a little like Stephen Colbert’s opening theme, with flags and patriots and all that, and the voice-over booming about THE ADVENTURE THAT BECAME A NATION.
This six-part series is a shared narrative (with dramatic readings, dramatic re-enactments, dramatic talking heads that seemed more a political/entertainment who’s who than actual historians) about Who We Are as a Nation and Culture, replete with swelling music and tear-welling iconography.
In Abrahamic tradition, God opened His mouth and said the Words, and the universe sprang forth from nothing. There was no sound, for there was no matter. There were the Utterances, and then all that was, is, and will be, came into being.
You and I make worlds with our words; we tap these little squares, make arcane symbols in tidy rows and magically share with each other the thoughts of our private minds.
Stories bind us together in our identity as a nation (as seen on TV this week,) in our identification within a subculture, and where we belong within our families. From pillow talk to international diplomacy, narrative is the coin of human exchange.
Narratives that came out of the Holocaust, out of Rwanda, Guatemala, Bosnia, and every place where violent social upheaval permitted terrible social injustice are stories that give a voice to, and validate the truth of, suffering. There is this need we have to tell, to lift our shirts and show the wounds in our sides and say “this is where it hurts,” as though your hand on my side is the best balm for its healing. That’s story-telling as healing, narrative at its best.
This is true closer to home, in the current church abuse scandals, (have you heard the voices of the abused as they talk to the cameras?) and even closer in the sometimes banal, sometimes terrible secrets inside our own lives (Mom, there’s something I have to tell you.)
But the biggest, most complicated, and most important stories we tell are the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves. And sometimes we use story as a way of denying what’s real. Robert Trivers, a noted evolutionary biologist, has that said self-deception is a way to hide the truth from others by hiding it from ourselves. If we accept the stories we are telling about ourselves, we’ll appear to others to be telling the truth.
I once knew a woman who had an affair during her marriage. To a few close friends, (before she dropped them on the way to her newly created life,) she showed a photo of her lover, a young man many years her junior. “Isn’t he beautiful?” she gushed, “We take romantic swims together at twilight.”
Her husband found out about the affair and after a big fight told her to leave. She lived with the boyfriend for at least a year, I think. She emailed me some months later to say that she’d gone to a priest who’d told her not to listen to criticism from those who thought she was wrong to move in with a male friend when she was driven from her home in the middle of the night by a cruel husband, but to be thankful for the one who’d taken her in.
I’m guessing she didn’t show the priest the wallet photo of her lover. I’m pretty sure that none of the people in her new life know much about truth from her, and I think she doesn’t know too much about it either.
And me, I used to tell myself stories about my family, the same ones my family told me: “We are close, we don’t need others, you can only trust your family, all others will hurt you. We are healthy and good.” Then I grew up and moved away, and looked over my shoulder and thought, “whoa, that’s messed up.” We were a mini North Korea and I was an accomplice.
That was when I understood the power of personal myth. I promised myself ever after to only build my personal story on what I know to be scrupulously true (with varying success. I don’t always see my error immediately, sometimes my thinking is quite wishful, and sometimes seeing truth can be like witnessing a crime.)
Because here is a very true truth I have learned from watching people I’ve known who are excellent, passionate and faithful myth builders: after a while I won’t be able to tell true from false. All of that self-deception screws up my compass and renders me unable to see truth from falsehood. And that’s when I become vulnerable to any lie told to me by a friend, an employer, an advertiser, or a government.
My challenge every day is to live in clarity, and not in false stories. It isn’t a decision that I made the one time, either, but something I have to decide over and over again every time I think a thought or open my mouth.
This is a hard challenge and not one I would ask anyone else to do.
But if you are like-minded, if you struggle, too, or if you have some really GOOD DISH on the subject, tell me about it. I love a good story. Brb making popcorn.