So, I’ve been listening to some lectures on story, and I have some thoughts (I know, surprising).
First, the lecturer talks about how difficult it is for us to understand our own, individual stories. A couple of the reasons are that the beginning of our story is fairly vague to us: we may have a few shadowy recollections, growing stronger as our childhood progresses, without any real chronological understanding to the events, unless it was given to us by someone else. Thus, the beginning of our stories comes from the fog, slowly becoming clearer as we get closer to the present day.
And, so it is with the end of our stories: none of us knows much beyond the next few moments what we will really be doing, and we may have five or ten-year goals, but those can quickly change. We don’t know how our story will end, whether it will be happiness or success or failure or disappointment. We don’t even know how today will end.
We are inexorably “middled.” (Not my phrase, but I quite like it.)
With the breakdown of the metanarrative over the past 100+ years, we find an increasing population of people who don’t know where they came from or where they’re going. When people can’t tie their own story into a larger story (metanarrative), they can’t even make sense of their own story. We try to (think of how ancestry websites have become so popular as of late — people want to know their story) but ultimately find answers that are largely meaningless. We’re middled. We don’t really know where we’re going.
When my story doesn’t have meaning, then my actions don’t matter. Morality, the reasoned action that I have a place and can do good to others, that my actions matter, gets thrown out the window.
As we lose our metanarrative, our place in the whole, we lose our morality. And, as we lose our morality and values, we lose more story. As the agnostic Robert McKee wrote, “the erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of stories.” To paraphrase, he argues that the writer uses values to shape a story, what is good and bad, what is worth fighting and dying for. When the writer loses these values, she loses her ability to tell a good story.
It is a vicious circle. Whichever ultimately came first doesn’t matter much, but we lose values, we lose the power of story, which makes us lose more values, which makes good stories all the rarer.
Think about it. How easily do we pass by a stranded motorist, or a person asking for money? How well do you know your neighbors? We don’t see that our stories intersect with other stories anymore: my story is about me getting where I’m going on time, or having the money in my pocket for what I want. It is, above all, MY story.
We fail to see that we’re part of something larger. We fail to understand not just a larger context of our lives, but a larger story. Not just a set of rules, but a way of life.
We need, desperately, to be un- “middled.” But how do we get there?
(more thoughts coming soon.)