30 November 2016

Telling Stories, Telling Secrets

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ”
― Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

The stories we tell ourselves are important.

     Those of you who've been around me long enough have probably heard me repeat that in some way or another.

     Tonight, I'm thinking about the stories I tell myself, the stories my friends tell themselves, and the stories that I hear people tell each other. Every time we make an assertion or tell a story about ourselves to someone else, what we're really doing is repeating that story to ourselves, reinforcing the narrative, building a plot device. We're scripting. I'm using the collective pronoun we to bring you into this story, but don't be fooled: I'm talking about myself, first and foremost. Maybe I'm talking about you too. You tell me. 

     It doesn't matter if the story is true, if it lines up with observable facts or events or unobservable thought patterns or unseen behaviors. It just has to make sense to us, just has to be true enough. It has to explain the unexplainable.

     Why did my spouse leave me? 
     Why do I keep dating people who are bad for me? 
     Why did I choose this restaurant and not that one? 
     Why do I keep doing something that I feel ashamed of? 
     Why am I at this point in my life?

      I've heard all of those questions. I've asked them. I've listened quietly to them. I have no answer because I am too tired to formulate and reformulate stories that can make sense of pain, or grief, or loss, or choice. I'm not interested in "why." I'm interested in the reasons people think they do things. I'm interested in the lies people think are impervious to eyes that never close and the truths that people bottle up and cannot ever say, ever admit, ever submit to. 

     We're adept at telling stories to explain these things to ourselves and others and when we fall short, we're happy to find others to tell us stories: stories and explanations that they'll change and suggest until you build a collaborative narrative that helps assuage the pain or the fear or the guilt or the shame. There's nothing wrong with that. It seems to be hardwired into our minds, this need for stories. We build up a life of pretty and not-so-pretty fictions and "lessons learned" and reimagine ourselves as more heroic, more evil, more irreplaceable, more wonderful, or more unloveable than any being could ever be. All the qualities of God. All the iniquities of Sin. And so we justify or pardon or condemn, becoming martyrs, judges, destroyers, and saints in equal turn.  

     I don't ascribe a moral quality to this. That would be too much plotline. People want, so they take. People don't want, so they discard. There's no answer to "why" that satisfies the question, but we're adept at asking and when we find that the ones we ask cannot answer it to our satisfaction, we find a story to tell ourselves.

     We have to live with the choices we make. We're not, contrary to popular belief, terribly rational beings. We act out of instinct. We act out of conditioning. We haul ourselves out of bed to make sure our friend gets out of a bad spot. We stand our ground in a fight we'll lose. We love the ones who don't love us as we deserve. We formulate ideas about the world that we insist are scientific and disregard the fact that our sample size is seldom more than a handful.

     We look at the world through cracked and soiled lenses and forget that we can take those glasses off, that we still have some power over how we look at the world. We don't always see the world as it is. We see the world as we are, or at least as we see ourselves. But we can change that. 

     We want to be honest. We do. We're just really bad at it because people are really bad at dealing with it. They brush it off. Get defensive. Try to "fix" it. 

     There's no story necessary to say you're afraid. There's not a narrative required to say that you're falling in love. There's not an explanation needed for falling out of love. There's no need to try to describe why you feel lonely or lost or disappointed or hurt. 

     And there's no reason to expect anyone to know why those things are. You're sad because you've lost something. You're ashamed because you thought you were something else, because things didn't fit in with your world and then they did and now you don't know what or who you are and then it's more drinks and a new narrative: "I don't care anymore," "I'm just living life."

       My new favorite is "I'm just trying to survive," and believe me, it feels that way. But what I'm trying to survive is uncertainty, pain, loss, fear, and grief. I ache. I rage. I long. I hurt. I regret. I miss. I just don't know how to say it. 

     This is how we live. Afraid that no one else is telling themselves the same stories that we are: feeling impossibly detached from everyone else. They could never understand.

     Stop for a moment. Close the book. Say what you feel without the need to explain it. 

     And then see if someone else has read the same story. Take heart.

     Our stories are not all that different.

A different version of this appeared here in June 2013 as "Stories."