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We Do Not Tell Stories as They Are…

We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are… We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.

I don’t know the original source of this quote, but I came across it in Irish poet/theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter a few weeks ago and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On the face of it, these words could be taken as expressing little more than the tired refrain of postmodernism. We don’t have access to anything like “objective truth,” only to ourselves and our own inner states. The stories we tell are little more than the laborious outworkings of our own biographies. There cannot and could never be a genuinely true story, only stories that are true for me, true for you, true for whoever. Which is of course another way of saying that there are no true stories. 

I happen not to be quite so pessimistic about truth not least because even those who rehearse critiques like the one above often seem to have at least a few truths that they consider to be objective and normative and that they expect their neighbours and fellow citizens to act in accordance with (if you doubt this, just try speaking a word or two against the individual’s ability to determine their own values). There is nothing quite so comically ironic as the spectacle of someone who in one breath sings the praises of pluralism and how we all get to decide what’s “true for us” and in the next is making strong moral judgments against those whose truths don’t line up with their own.

But let us not wander too far down those well-worn and weary trails. Back to the quote. Postmodern inconsistencies and anxieties aside, I think that it expresses a vital anthropological truth, and one that we would do well to probe more deeply (i.e., not just as an explanation for other people’s weird views, but for some important insights into our own). We see this operating in pretty much every domain of human life and interaction.

We could begin by opening a newspaper. There is the obvious problem of “fake news” that has dominated public discourse lately (and fake news is, of course, transparently and laughably self-serving), but even the “normal” news is tricky. This morning I read about the poison gas attack on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. To the surprise of no one, the USA and Russia have different interpretations of the event, different ways of telling the story. American authorities, who have spent roughly the last half decade trying and failing to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, blame government forces. Russia, who has long been a supporter of Assad for a wide variety of reasons, blames “rebel groups.” There is a true story in there somewhere, but it’s not easy to get at it when the most powerful actors and media sources consistently frame everything in ways that preserve and bolster their own narrative and self-interest.

(As an aside, it’s been fascinating to listen to how the Syrians I’ve gotten to know over the last year view Assad’s government. Suffice to say that things aren’t nearly as simple as the media on either side often make them out to be.)

What about closer to home? I spent part of Saturday morning in conversation with a local police officer who does a lot of work with domestic violence cases. He painted a pretty grim picture of the reality on the ground with many of the recently arrived Syrian refugees. “They’re not adjusting to Canadian norms,” he said. “The men aren’t adapting as quickly and they’re losing control of their women and children, so they lash out with threats and violence.” He went on to say, “You know, it’s all fine and good for people to have nice ideals and to write flowery words about welcoming the stranger, but then they go home to their nice houses and we’re the one dealing with all the garbage on the ground.” It was hard to hear this (particularly as someone who as written a few flowery words on these matters), but how could I deny the truth of what he was saying? I could respond by saying that I see different more hopeful and inspiring stories, but where would that leave us besides with competing narratives based on different experiences? He lives and moves in contexts where he is likely to see the worst; I live and move in contexts where I am more likely to see the best. This affects the stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them.

We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are…

We could say the same about any contentious issue. Where one sees a “typical drunk Indian that can’t get their s*** together,” others see a member of a beaten down community suffering the cross-generational affects of colonialism. Where one grumbles about another minority group squealing about their rights and demanding endless validation for their myriad identities, another approaches the issue with real histories of abuse loneliness and suicide attempts in the rearview mirror. Where one sees a political party that is crippling the economy and destroying their family’s future, another will view that same party as the one that implemented policies that allowed them to escape war and start again. That’s not to say that each perspective in each case is equally valid, of course. It is simply to say, again, that the ways in which we tell a story often says at least as much about us as it does about the story itself.

What is true of “issues” is obviously true in relationships as well. A father who is struggling to cope with his teenage son’s behaviour will tell the story of the causes of a recent conflict much differently than his son. Anyone who has witnessed the breakdown of a marriage or a bitter divorce proceedings and custody battles will be painfully aware that we tell stories in ways that justify ourselves and demonize the other.

These tendencies extend even to the utterly trivial and banal. I was at a junior hockey playoff game last night and was afforded a rather amusing reminder of how easy it is for tribalistic loyalties to be inflamed. The ref is always wrong when the calls go against us, the other team is always dirty, etc. On more than one occasion I found myself rather sheepishly taking my seat after hollering out some idiotic nonsense wondering just when and how I had managed to become such an irrational and manipulable fool.

We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are…

man born blindA few weeks ago, the gospel text was John 9:1-41, the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. The story is less about the healing itself than about the question of who sees truly. Or, we might say, about who tells the story well. The religious leaders were outraged that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. They told the story in ways that cast Jesus as the sinner and the man who was healed as untrustworthy in order to preserve their religious categories and understandings of who God was and how God worked. The man who was born blind told the story in a much simpler way: “All I know is that I was blind but now I see.” The story ends with Jesus saying that those who think they see clearly are the ones who are blind and those who are aware of their blindness are the ones who will be give the gift of sight.

Which is perhaps another way of saying that we ought to be very alert and attentive to this most basic and persistent of human tendencies: We see what we want to see. We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are…

Is it possible to tell a story as it is? Perhaps not entirely. We will never know every fact, every outlier, every extenuating circumstance. And we can never fully subtract ourselves and our hopes and fears and worries and insecurities from any of our tellings. But as I think about all of the above, about the ways in which I tend to tell stories that justify myself and reinforce my own views, and about the story of Jesus and the man born blind, I am left with two rather simple conclusions.

First, trying to become aware of the fact that we tend to tell stories as we are not as they are is a pretty important starting point on the road to actually getting at the truth of the matter. At the very least, we will gradually come to be less reflexive in our judgments and less self-serving in our storytelling. This posture is, I think, a good and necessary one from which to approach most issues and relationships with the humility and openness that is necessary to encounter truth.

Second, if we ever find ourselves prioritizing our tellings of stories over the welfare of real flesh and blood human beings, we have probably taken a wrong turn. For this is surely among the most basic failures of the Pharisees in John 9—they didn’t actually care to see the glorious reality of a real person who was blind and now could see. Their religious system was more important than a life made new. May Christ have mercy on us for the times in which we do the same.

We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are… No, we very often don’t. It’s true. But maybe the more we can understand and acknowledge this, the closer we might come to encountering the truth of the matter, and consequently telling stories that matter.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for this, Ryan. Didactic to the core. I wish I could share in the hope of the last paragraph. I cannot.

    Only those reborn of the Spirit can begin the process of learning to understand the truth, then telling it.

    Jesus kept mostly silent when confronted by the deniers. The example we are called to follow, I believe.

    The authorities of worldy power propagandize, obfuscate and lie. Those who participate in their processes are only different by degree not kind.

    The truth must always stand apart from what is false. It cannot engage with it….”This is what we heard from Him (Jesus). God is light, in Him there is no darkness”….

    The persecution of the truth has already started. That we remain mostly ignorant to that reality speaks to the deadly effects of our affluence. Our “Rome” burns and we fiddle. For those on the margins who are actually dying we offer a great deal of inaction.

    The new social order is in it’s infancy but make no mistake, the murder of the truth and all those who stand with it are high on the agenda.

    April 6, 2017
  2. #

    Wow Ryan. Wisdom to share with Sudbury’s new comer sponsors

    April 7, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Forgive me, Ryan for not engaging with where “you are” here….the comments are thick with irony, friends… of the challenges of Holy Spirit centering a prayer life is that, unlike institutional worship, emotions run high and deep….”I gotta preach this stuff now, I gotta preach to it always!!….

    The Holy Spirit, Is. “I am that am”. Even the smallest encounter with the smallest fragment of the Eternal is overwhelming to all our senses and faculties. A period of discernment is prudent with any and every such encounter…..Prudence ISN’T my middle name!!! And so it goes. 😀….

    Perhaps telling stories as we are, is not the problem. It may well be the whole truth. What if objectivity is nothing more then an intellectual arrogance and a moral deceit. Another affirmation made by the, “snake” seducing, “Adam and Eve” AGAIN into believing that the fruits of the tree of knowledge are all that they need…..

    “Don’t worry, you got this. Once you understand the concept you’ ll always apply it, in every situation right for it and always in perfect preportion. The only thing keeping you from being equal to God with regard to the understanding of the wholeness of truth(the story)and applying perfect justice, is the knowledge that he forbids you”….sounds familiar….

    The problem may not be in that we tell stories as we are but in what we are. If I understand the Spirit, the tradition and the scripture correctly, what we are is One.

    If that understanding is true and we were truthfully living it, then telling the story of one person would be telling the story and the truth, about all people.

    You can’t leave Eden and still live there.

    April 10, 2017
    • What if objectivity is nothing more then an intellectual arrogance and a moral deceit. Another affirmation made by the, “snake” seducing, “Adam and Eve” AGAIN into believing that the fruits of the tree of knowledge are all that they need…..

      Interesting angle. The illusion of objectivity could very well be bound up with the the idolatrous desire to know beyond our proper created scope.

      It could be that if we understood this truly and lived it truthfully, telling the story of one person would be telling the truth about all people. I just don’t think it’s possible to understand and live, thus. We are well and truly east of Eden, in every way. The Spirit beckons us on to newness, but it seem destined to (probably appropriately) elude our grasp until Christ comes in glory.

      April 11, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        You are right to challenge my claim that the story of one, tells the story of all. It is an ill defined statement. (1) I think it is better to say that in describing what is different about us in our stories our differences only speak to the truth if they remind us of and call us to oneness. (2) Anyone who claims to speak in terms of my own story and truth apart from any other story or truth is talking out their arse and deserves to have their own facebook page with only themselves as friend…..ok I think l got that one. Lol.

        April 12, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        As for your comments re the Spirit in the last paragraph, I get what you are saying but I would say it like this, once Spirit comes to you insofar as the Spirit is internal to us, the Kingdom is with you now. I do not believe you get a more powerful Spirit later. The fullness of the Kindom is with you now. The cross is that we choose, for as many reasons as there are stars, not to fully commune with that power. We subordinate it to our own will.” We bury our talents” until we lose them and they are given to another. Who does the same, who does the same….you get my point. And in so doing, Hell on earth remains.

        Our choosing, not Gods.

        Maybe Eden was never a place, it was a state of being. A state of being that Jesus Christ reimagined for us through His Crucifixion and Resurrection.

        April 12, 2017
      • Yeah, re: “the Spirit,” I didn’t express it very well… I guess all I’m really trying to say is that being indwelt by the Holy Spirit does not, regrettably, transform us into fully formed, Christ-like, sinless beings who tell stories truly. The self can, by the power of the Spirit be disciplined and subordinated and transformed into greater and greater holiness, but it can never be fully extinguished.

        April 12, 2017

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