Every life is a work of fiction. That’s what I tell my memoir students. People come to me wanting to tell their life story, the narrative that sums them up, the myth that captures their essence. They expect to find this story hiding inside them like one of Michelangelo’s statues trapped inside the marble, fully formed and waiting to appear.
They’re in for a big surprise, of course. Instead of finding the perfect story, they discover a tower of Babel, a slew of motley characters in search of a coherent author. There is no singular there there, they find, no masterpiece fixed inside of the stone. There are episodes, anecdotes, motifs, impressions, memories, and foregone conclusions melded with imagination. But a fait accompli narrative strong enough to support the sum of their many parts? This is just a fantasy.
We construct our personal myth from the random facts that life presents us, connecting dots to make a shape, devising plots from circumstance, changing characters, fashioning conflicts, adjusting structure, settings, and themes, as our lives unfold over time. Although our stories are fiction, we operate as if they were true. We are Homo narrans, the storytelling ape, the only species that survives by creating a conceptualized self—the character “I”—apart from the flesh-and-blood creature it is. This is how we brave existence on a mysterious planet. To cope with mystery, we create story. Having no idea who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, or what life means, we adapt by giving names to things and pretending the names and stories are real.
This is the root of our ignorance, mistaking ourselves for the story. When we see that this is a false equation, that we are not synonymous with our story, it is a watershed moment in self-realization. Students are often taken aback when this happens. “Who Am I?” they ask themselves, unable to locate their story on paper. This question is their initiation into the life of self-inquiry. In time, they come to see that the gap between story and self, which feels at first like a disaster, is actually an open door, a portal to personal freedom. It’s the crack in everything sung about in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem: “That’s how the light gets in.” Inhabiting this crack, standing outside our story, affords us a measure of liberation. From this witness perspective, we see that we are many selves living many stories. Although we’d prefer to think of ourselves as having a consistent personality across time and space, this is simply not the case. No one’s the same at work as they are at home, in flagrante delicto or shopping at Macy’s, sitting in church or drinking on Bourbon Street covered with Mardi Gras doubloons. As Dostoevsky pointed out, man is the animal that can adapt to anything. Shifting situations, we adjust our masks and stories, morph, dissemble, compartmentalize, omit, and change like chameleons, gluing our many selves together with this fictive “I.” Self-inquiry in writing or wisdom practice unsticks the glue and frees us of the adhesive pronoun. This unsticking awakens us to the truth. When you tell the truth, your story changes. When your story changes, your life is transformed.
Knowing how little we actually know, we suddenly become a lot more creative. Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.” Meeting each moment with open awareness rather than through a narrative scrim, we find ourselves snapping to attention. “If your mind is empty,” said Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, “It is always open for everything. In the beginners mind, there are many possibilities. But in the expert’s there are few.” Creativity comes from not knowing, acknowledging that we are protean, quantum, shape-shifting creatures with many compartments and numerous layers, a chorus of multiple selves. “Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asked in Song of Myself. “Very well, then I contradict myself/ I am large, I contain multitudes.” Meeting our multitudes is an adventure. The most predictable person turns out to be a matrix of incertitude, a hodgepodge of possibilities pretending to have only one face. We contain this complexity the best we can but the changeableness of our fluid nature is a mystery we must tolerate. Mystery is always changing its story. That’s what makes it a mystery.
Truth focuses our internal witness, connecting us to that part of ourselves that stands outside the flow of time and needs no story to exist. Writing is hardly the only way of stepping outside our story. Catastrophe is also terrific. I discovered this in my twenties when I was diagnosed with a fatal illness. For more than a decade, I sat in this in-between place waiting for my body to wither and die. This period of prolonged affliction stripped me completely of my story. The life I’d known had cracked down the middle, the house I’d lived in, the self I’d believed in, the future I thought was waiting for me, was suddenly condemned. Simone Weil, the mystic philosopher whose life was a study in affliction, compared this state of prolonged dread to that of a condemned man forced to stare for hours at the guillotine that’s going to cut off his head. The upside of this situation is that as the self-story is worn away, the witness grows stronger in proportion. Catastrophe shows us the part of ourselves that cannot be destroyed, the consciousness bigger than circumstances. We’re no longer defeated by samsara. We have the witness to stand beside us.
In spiritual circles, it’s commonly thought that story itself is an affliction, that our goal as truth-seekers ought to be story-less-ness, Zen-like just this-ness, detachment from personal myths, as if we had no shape at all, no history, memories, dreams or dramas. But is this really possible? Should we strive to transcend narrative, reject the storytelling imagination, and not enjoy being Homo narrans? Of course not. Story goes hand in hand with survival. Story matters in the same way that having a body matters; both help us navigate the physical world. Story is our vehicle. Story enables us to pass wisdom forward as well as to connect. “All sorrows can be borne if we put them into a story,” Karen Blixen wrote. Telling stories is a sacred act of communion; we know ourselves, being known by others; we see and hear ourselves through the eyes and ears of people who will listen to us. Connecting through story, we feel whole, knowing we are not alone.
There’s a beautiful story about a Jewish woman who’d gone to a therapist because she was having trouble breathing. As they spoke, the therapist noticed the camp numbers tattooed on the patient’s forearm. The woman coughed a great deal while telling her story. “When did you start having trouble breathing?” the therapist asked. “When my friend died two years ago,” the survivor admitted. “When she was alive,” this lady told the doctor, “we could talk about anything. Although she had not been in the camps, she understood. But now there is no one to tell. And the nightmares haunt me. I can’t sleep alone in the house. I know that if I want to live, I have to find another friend.”
This is how important our stories are. But just as the mind is said to be a terrible master but an excellent servant, story is not meant to be in charge. If we remember who is telling the tale, the story won’t be living us. The witness is our reality check, watching the passing show like a wise man on the banks of a river enjoying the flood of experience. The wise man does not drown. He knows that he is not the river. He’s the witness to the river, telling stories about its passing, the swells of love and waves of heartbreak, the depths of nature’s complexity. Students new to telling their story come to me frantic and drowning sometimes, overwhelmed by how impossible it is to capture life in words. I suggest that they try getting out of the river. I teach them to watch the river, instead, and describe, down to the finest detail, everything they see. If they pay attention to the river, especially themselves, in all their human complexity, they’ll have stories enough to last them several lifetimes. All they have to do is write.
This article is also published on www.contemplativejournal.com
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