I just got back from a walk (a thing I have almost literally [in the literal sense of “literally”] not been able to do for the better part of six weeks) and here is what I found myself thinking about: The narratives we construct about ourselves and our lives.
When we think about our past, our family, the day through which we are currently muddling, we always make choices about the narrative. Maybe our ancestors came from eight different places, but our family keeps the traditions of one. Maybe we remember our success (or failure) in one year of school more than the others. Maybe I tripped and fell, but the people who helped me were so kind — do I talk about (think about) my sense of humiliation, the blood on my knee, or the kindness?
The choices that we make have an impact that is literally incalculable (because who’s ever going to figure out a way to calculate that?) on our lives. How I choose to remember my grandmother — the parts I hold on to, as well as the parts I allow to fall away — have a daily impact on how I think of myself, how I use my time, how I talk to my kids (and again, I mean that quite literally. Anyone who knew my grandmothers will know what I mean).
I don’t believe, as many self-help guides would suggest, that we necessarily choose our suffering. First of all, if (for instance) you’re living in chronic, generational poverty and can’t get your clinical depression treated, you haven’t chosen your suffering. But there’s a lot else that we don’t choose. My father died when I was a baby, for example, and my family has had alcoholism wash through it in waves for generations — the suffering those facts have caused me is real. That suffering is a fact, not a choice. There is no way that I can “choose” any of that away. I also can’t choose to upend social stigma or expectations, or decades of socialization, or, I don’t know, natural disasters. Or the government shutdown. Attitude can only take you so far.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a force. What narrative do I want? Even if I can’t upend social stigma — do I at least want to know that I tried? How do I deal, at age 49, with the loss of my father in way that is meaningful? How do I focus on kindness, rather than on bloody knees? The knee won’t un-bloody. But I want the kindness to matter, too.
A big part of why I’ve had so little time over the past two months is because I’ve been teaching a course on politics and the mass media, and the idea of “framing” the news is one we’ve talked a lot about. Though I’m not a huge fan of our text, one line leapt off the page and has remained lodged in my brain: “We live in terms of the stories we tell.”
The text goes on to say “We live in terms of the stories we tell, stories about what things exist, stories about how things work, and stories about what to do” — and that is all true, but unnecessary. It’s all right there in the first nine words. We live in terms of the stories we tell.
What stories do I want to spend my life telling?