I’m sure it’s happened to you. You’ve sitting at home in your farmhouse in East Outer Blogistan, no one around for miles and miles, save for your spouse, significant other, roommate-who’s-just-a-friend-really, or your woozle or pootie. It’s late at night but that’s okay because you and the aforementioned played a game of Monopoly all the way to the end. If the aforementioned was a woozle or pootie, you probably won. Still, you’re surprised to hear a loud, long knocking at your door. “I’ll see who it is,” you say pleasantly. You pull on the fuzzy slippers – not the ones with the kooky eyes on springs, but the other ones that don’t make you look quite so silly – and pad downstairs. You get to the door and….
Trust me, it’s happened to you. Just as your intrepid Kossologist is sure this week’s Kossascope will happen to you, or someone. It’s in the stars, after all. (More)
This week we’re exploring Homo narratus, humans as a storytelling species. We not only like to tell stories; it’s fair to say use stories to organize stimuli into experience. As we’ll see today, that can be a problem when we try to predict the ending of a story we’re still living.
We began by exploring two common forms of human storytelling. Wednesday we looked at age-and-change narratives, those “When I was your age” stories we endured as children and now make our children and grandchildren endure. Yesterday we had fun with geographic hardiness narratives, where regions compete for who endures the worst of Mother Nature’s offerings.
Both of those are forms of hero narratives. They’re collective hero narratives, as they set out a heroic “we.” Most of the time, when we tell “When I was your age” stories, we tell them with other people of our own age group. Similarly, we usually tell “Our weather is so bad” stories among others from our region. There may be younger listeners for our age-and-change narratives, and people from other areas hearing our geographic hardiness narratives, but we don’t really tell the stories for them. We tell them for others in our age or region cohort. Readers already posted it in comments the past two days, but this Monty Python skit is a delightful take on these collective hero narratives:
Like the Monty Python troupe, we often embellish those stories. As we tell them, they aren’t strictly fictional, but neither are they strictly factual. They’re tall tales, not because the tales need to be taller, but because the embellishment makes us – the heroes – seem to stand a little taller. The more difficult the hardships we’ve overcome, the more heroic we must be.
Narratives of hope.
We use these hardiness narratives to encourage ourselves. If we’ve come through hard times before, we can get through the challenges of today. When President Obama speaks of American exceptionalism, and he often does, it’s not a story of superiority. He doesn’t echo Bush echoing Reagan echoing Kennedy echoing Lincoln echoing Cotton Mathers echoing Jesus of Nazareth, and speak of “a shining city on a hill.”
President Obama’s view of American exceptionalism is one of collective hardiness and idealism. We freed ourselves from the British empire. We endured a Civil War, the Great Depression, and two world wars. We’ve worked toward a more perfect Union, ending Jim Crow and creating more equal opportunities for women and people of color. We’ve made it possible for the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a single mom to become President of the United States.
Not because we’re an inherently superior people – if we were, we needn’t have had those problems at all – but because we’re a hardy, idealistic people who pull together to overcome challenges. We’ve made our mistakes, to be sure, and President Obama is not reluctant to admit them. Recognizing and overcoming our own weaknesses and mistakes is part of being that hardy and idealistic people we imagine ourselves to be. The underlying message is not that the rest of the world should bow to our superior character, but that we should stand up to the challenges of our time, because we can meet those challenges. “Yes, we can.” It’s a narrative of hope.
Narratives of fear: borrowing jacks.
As President Obama noted in his national security speech yesterday, the all too common alternative has been narratives of fear. Republicans aren’t the only ones who tell them. We tell them to each other, and to ourselves, politically and in our personal lives.
Let’s return to that isolated farmhouse in the introduction, but switch points of view. Now we’re looking at a man kneeling beside a car stopped on a lonely country road. He got held up at a meeting a few towns back, and he has an early morning meeting a few towns away. All he wants is a motel room and a few hours’ sleep, but there’s nothing around so he’s kept driving until he heard that thwump-thwump-thwump sound we all recognize. Yes, it’s a flat tire.
He stands up from examining it and goes to his trunk, and of course … he has no jack. He took the jack out to make room for the whatever-it-was he was hauling last weekend, and forgot to put it back. Now he’s stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. And doesn’t that just figure. It’s the story of his life.
Then he sees a light in the distance, a dim light in the second floor window of a farmhouse on the horizon. Maybe the farmer has a jack. What the hell, may as well ask.
But as he’s walking, he starts telling himself “the story of his life.” Oh sure, there’s a farmhouse and a light on, but there’s probably no one home, because that’s the way his life goes. Then a shadow moves in front of the window. Okay, so there’s someone home. But farmers are supposed to go to bed early. What’s this guy doing up at this hour? Probably up to no good, that’s what. Just had a fight with the wife, no doubt. Or worse. He’s probably got a gun, too. Most farmers do. So he’s a pissed off farmer with a gun. Of course. Who else would the salesman run into out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night? It’s “the story of his life,” after all.
Even if he doesn’t have a gun, the farmer’s probably rude. That’s why he lives out here all alone with nobody else for miles around. Neighbors probably can’t stand him. The salesman rehearses a dozen possible nasty arguments in his head as he trudges up the hill and then up the driveway, every argument ending worse than the one before it.
And you hear the knocking on the door and pull on those fuzzy slippers. You pad downstairs as the knocking continues. It’s someone in trouble, that’s for sure. Hope it’s not the sheriff coming to say your brother’s in the hospital. He’s been sick, but he was getting better. You get a look out the window, from the stairs, and there’s no sheriff car in the driveway. Whew. Whatever else it might be, it’ll be okay. Someone’s in trouble but you can deal with it.
You open the door, and a sweat-soaked, red-faced guy screams at you:
“Just keep your goddamned jack!”
And he turns and storms away into the night. “People sure are strange sometimes,” you tell your spouse, significant other, roommate-who’s-really-just-a-friend, woozle, or pootie, when you get back upstairs. But then you reach for the phone, because obviously the guy was upset. And he did mention the word jack. You call the sheriff and tell him there’s a guy with car trouble out on your road. You’re not sure where, because the guy was too flustered to say much. The sheriff tells you he’ll take care of it. East Outer Blogistanis are good folks. Salt of the earth.
“It’s the story of my life.”
We’ve all used that phrase. It’s not surprising, because we construct our experience using stories. This happens, then that happens, leading to this other happening. Without our narratives, the incoming stimuli from our senses have no context, and without context, no meaning. We fit them into stories to make sense of the blurry smear of events.
The stories are always artificial. We give them beginnings, middles, and endings. We populate them with characters who have reasons for acting as they do, even if we have to guess at the reasons. We highlight the parts that are most interesting, and gloss over or omit details that seem less important or don’t fit the overall flow of the story. We embue them with emotion and meaning. We use them to study or to teach, or simply to fill idle minutes or hours.
Our stories are artificial, and few more so than “the story of my life.” It’s still being written by my living of it, in the decisions I make and the ways I respond to others’ decisions and other circumstances. And we often get ourselves in trouble when we try to guess the ending. Like the salesman, we can set ourselves up for failure – or even guarantee it – by how we structure “the story of my life.”
If we imagine our lives ruled by Murphy’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible time, we often make things go wrong. And when we do, we tell ourselves that just proves we were right all along. Because everything going wrong is “the story of my life.”
Narratives of hope – even if embellished – can motivate us toward our very best. Narratives of fear – however “realistic” they may seem – can paralyze us, or elicit our very worst.
So what’s “the story of your life?”
Let’s hope it’s not written in your Kossascope. In fact, it’s not even your Kossascope. It’s for other people just like you….
Gemini – It’s finally your turn, and you went and rolled snake-eyes. At least they’re twins.
Cancer – The rumors of impending calamity are still just rumors. Until you do something.
Leo – All of those reasons are reasonable. But here are some unreasonable reasons.
Virgo – The pootie isn’t really hungry. She just wants you to rearrange the food in neat piles.
Libra – Telling your tropical fish to go soak their heads isn’t really such an insult.
Scorpio – Relax, the stuffed animals aren’t whispering about you while you sleep. We are.
Sagittarius – You will achieve an astonishing success this weekend. As usual.
Capricorn – Don’t be dismayed by your failures. They’re our comic relief.
Aquarius – Your sun, moon, planet, and stars all agree. We’re waiting to learn what they agree about.
Pisces – Running through raindrops is fun, unless you’re doing it in your kitchen.
Aries – The mysteries of the universe will open for you. While you’re looking the other way.
Taurus – The stars have good news for you. Oh wait. False alarm. Sorry.