Divided by Narratives?

As I reflect on the Life Review process, I am more and more aware of the embedded cultural narratives that overlay or undergird or personal stories. Often we are not even aware of how our sense of well being is shaped more or less in harmony with or over against the norms expressed in these narratives. Everything from the tabloids we see in the grocery store to the ads on television to the subtly expressed expectations of our peers, telegraph messages about how others “like us” are in the world. Adopting a dominant cultural norm as one’s own can be a comfortable alternative to the self awareness needed to sort through the messages and experiences chosen or thrust upon us that it takes to claim one’s own story. This is not to say that there is not much of value in the cultural narrative. What I wonder is, how do we build into those narratives a greater resilience to the unexpected, the inevitable losses and dramatic turns that life can take?

A pervasive narrative is around privilege. For better and for worse we live in a country and a culture that promotes and reflects privilege at every turn we middle class white folk are being confronted in many ways by the question, “What does it mean to have more than we need?” I wonder how the narratives around that question may be fueling the growing political and cultural divide in America?

Consider:

Privilege Narrative 1

I have more than I need and I have earned it. I have worked hard and I deserve to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I need to keep working hard so that I can have/do/be more. My sense of well being is attached to my capacity to maintain and/or increase what I have. I am a responsible citizen because I vote/volunteer time/support social justice causes financially with my discretionary time and money that is left over after I have supported my current lifestyle and have added sufficiently to my retirement or rainy day savings. When I see my peers or others who have more – vacations, time off, quality cars or recreational options, I am often envious. I am aware of making excuses for my relative status and of sometimes living beyond my means because I want to appear “better off”.

My family associates with other families like us. We worry together about the future and the ways in which any of us could lose our financial security and our ability to provide for my children’s future. The best way for me to protect what I have is by accumulating more.

Privilege Narrative 2

I have more than I need. I am aware everyday of the opportunities to use my gifts to both meet the needs of something beyond those needs that also provides me with financial resources. I keep working hard because my effectiveness at what I do matters to me and to others. My sense of well being is attached to my realization that, having more than I need always affords the possibility of doing with less. I am a responsible citizen because I arrange my life priorities in such a way that I am able to make a consistent offering of time and financial resources to a cause that I have identified as significant and effective in making substantive social or political change. I save modestly for my own and my family’s future. I have health insurance and have provided for my own funeral expenses. I have raised my children to be self sufficient adults who are not dependent on a substantial inheritance. I am engaged in a faith/neighborhood/ community that includes many generations. I am humbled by the diversity of experience and loss in my community and the many transitions that we celebrate knowing that we live by grace and gratitude.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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.