Found in the Telling

“Legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks exposes the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated…One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism…” – Maria Popova

Some years after both of my parents had died, my husband and I had occasion to drive the country road near where my mother was born and lived until she married my father in 1925. She was 15 and he was 19. The town even then had been, I recall, a place where the trains stopped so that my grandfather, the “Pump man” could supply the steam engines with the water for steam.

On this day nearly eighty years later, there was little more there than a wide spot in the road. But story of their meeting and their marriage and their early life together hailed us as we passed and settled into the space between us as we continued on our drive. It was a story I had told so many times that it had become rote in a way that allowed me to really listen as  the familiar phrases came from my voice to my own ears. I realized that there was a time of nearly two years that had been missing from the any telling I had ever heard.

My three siblings, born between 1926 and 1932, were all living on that day of our drive . Despite the fourteen year gap between me and my sister, she and I and our two older brothers had long since established a strong connection and a shared story. So, of course, I called them to find the missing years. My sister quickly passed me on to the younger of my brothers who had shown the most overt curiosity about our family history in general. He had a number of speculative insights and pieces of chronology that helped a little but then passed me on to my older brother who had been born and lived during the missing years.

With his enthusiastic capacity to paint vivid pictures around vague recollections he created a lively narrative of the life and times of our young parents, some of which contradicted the chronology and events sketched our younger brother.

“Wow,” I said. “some of that is really different from what Byrne said.”

He chuckled. Then he said, “Well, if its accuracy you’re after, listen to Byrne. He is a historian. I am a story teller.”

Neither of us believed that those are mutually exclusive categories. In fact they are nearly always at play as we seek to use narrative to understand ourselves and the world. As we struggle to unpack the stories that influence public opinion and political outcomes it is hard to tell the historians from the story tellers.  As we strive to unpack the stories of our own lives it is often useful to recognize how accuracy and story come together to shape our private opinions and personal outcomes. The more invested we become in a particular telling, for whatever reason, the less invested we may become in accuracy and the more the story itself becomes shaped by the context and the culture that supports it.

Certainly in the telling of a story out of context, as most stories are, it is important to remember that all stories are continuous and that they are shaped by the rest of the story that came before and comes later. Our power for the future comes from our capacity to build with intention on the gifts and lessons offered to us by our whole lives.

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