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…
A 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.