I am increasingly fascinated by the human capacity for storytelling and worried by it. Worried because we seem to believe that because we love stories and are surrounded by them, we should try to fashion our lives as a story too.
So many of us seem to live as if we were walking autobiographies, or, worse, a novel in the making. We take each moment and try and make it fit and flow in our heads as part of some imagined whole. It is like we unconsciously feel like it is our job to hold the entirety of our life in ourselves at once, before and after, and, day by day, try to make the pages stay in some kind of meaningful order.
We edit as we go and we are ruthless and skilled. We unconsciously pull in details of our days that make our current thinkings hold together a little tighter, rounding out the parts we feel need extra attention. We ignore all the rest. I’m sure that this can do us good as well as ill but I do not know where the line falls and I doubt many of us do. I know we tend to take a red pen to the things that leave us with an uncomfortable sense that we’ve gone wrong somewhere, desperate to rewrite or hide them out of sight. I know we panic when we feel that our story has drifted from the ‘right’ one, questioning our very existence if we feel denied it. And, oh, how complex that right story is, the one we secretly believe is ours, deep down, under the surface of us. I could never guess yours, nor you mine.
Joy and suffering are such capacious, shifting things and yet we try to pin them down in ourselves, to hone them into shaped pens and tools with which to make ourselves. It works so well in written stories, in linear accounts and tales, so why shouldn’t it work in us too? We use them to make ourselves more interesting, to tie unresolved arcs into neat bows, to create mini-endings to sub-plots. And when we can’t or they don’t, it leaves us at a loss, forever waiting for a deeper meaning, or desperately trying to rake one together. We are very rarely prepared to let anything be boring, to be ordinary. How easy it is instead to shade our experiences, to plump them, maybe in the hope that today or one day soon, they will better prove how much we overcame, how hard we tried, how deeply we lived, and how much we deserve care and love and success and all the rest. And who can blame us: we are all just trying to get by and life can be so horribly hard.
I am so confused by it, by its potential and its risk. It is something so vitally separate from the gift of writing itself and yet it makes us all writers, in a way. The same tools that can be extraordinary and transformative applied to a page of words can become something deeply treacherous when we try to write ourselves alive. They can trap us into living out chapters of our lives in certain ways, sometimes over and over in the hope we’ll finally get it ‘right’, whatever that means for us. It makes us run, with feelings of mortal peril, at anything that seems to take us backwards, to make us smaller. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” we cry, as if there is again, all along, a secret synopsis, as if we always know best what should happen next. The people around us morph into allies and villains. We write their lines before they’ve said them. We despair when they do something that doesn’t fit.
Perhaps we were meant to live like this. There is certainly beauty in it. Perhaps all this is what human consciousness is and it is futile to fight it but, increasingly, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed some crucial point. Perhaps what is so miraculous about stories is that they are something we are not; that they let us play at being the gods we can never be in our own lives. We are, instead, bundles of chaos and chance who can, by grace or gift, create order with our words and our tales, but we are not the same as our creations, nor are we meant to be. We were always meant to be bigger and more complicated than the stories we can conceive of. Words are not the sum total of the people they speak of after all, just as our own writing isn’t the sum total of ourselves, and thank god for that.
Perhaps the trick is to let it all be as it is, our nature and our habit, but to simply hold it all a little more lightly. That said, I find something in me begins to resist.
I don’t want to have to fit a story anymore. I don’t want to be that neat or clever or constrained. I want to stop feeling like my life contains a point I must prove or pay back, that I am a puzzle box that must simply be twisted and turned in the right way to reveal a shiny treasure in the middle. I don’t want to have to put every day of my life to work to make me more lovable, more special, more anything. I want to stop feeling like there’s a character sketch of me that I’m not living up to, or, worse still, that I’m failing to function as a proper character at all.
I reject it all. If I must be a story, I think I will try to be short ones. Each told with as much honesty as I can muster but each allowed to exist as something separate and meaningful, just as is. No need to make me any more than that.
Besides, how much all of this gets in the way of the main business.
The sparrows in the beach hedge call, “Can we not be enough? Can we not be enough meaning for your life today?” and the twist of my son’s hair at the nape of his neck says the same, and I want to say yes, yes, yes, you are enough today and every day and this is a good life.