Our lives are events. Random, neutral events that exist without context at the moment we experience them. They live in their own tiny worlds like links not yet formed into a chain. We’re storytellers, we human beings. We understand our world to the extent that we connect these links with stories, tying them together with meaning and motive and the seductive arc of beginning-middle-end. We understand reality when we understand the stories we tell ourselves about it.
But with a million events in any given day, infinite experiences and memories to make sense of, how do we decide what links we’ll pull together? How do we determine what that story will be? Postmodernists like to talk about the malleability of history, its inherent untrustworthiness. After all, isn’t it just the story we tell ourselves about the events we have recorded? The important stuff, the meat that hangs on the bones of those events, is long forgotten. All we have are fossils and we tell our stories with them.
The same applies to our lives. I remember the breakup, the months following separation from the woman I thought I’d marry. I thrashed, panicked, struggled to find a reason for the past year of pain, a pattern to it that would promise an ending I could live with. I was searching for a story that would explain it. Boy meets girl, is afraid to commit, loses girl? It’s a common enough story, that one. But it didn’t ring true. Boy meets girl, girl is frightened by love, girl leaves boy? That one soothed my conscience but left me uneasy. Boy meets girl, shit happens? I didn’t know. Was I right? Was I wrong? Had I held back from her, or she from me? The events were inconclusive: what mattered was how you told them. What mattered was the narrative.
All those stories were scripts I knew inside out from movies, sitcoms, a hundred songs on the radio as I drove to work. Friends’ lives, relationship talk shows, books about love, the expectations of my family, my desires… All those things shaped the events in my past into a story I could recognize. And by extension, they shaped the options I saw for the future.
They shaped the future for me.
That’s the real power of the narrative.