The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I grew up with a certain narrative of myself, of how I got from point A to point B, of why I'd made the decisions I'd made, of who I was and my motivations along the way.

This story changed radically, however, about 36 years into it. Which means I moved blindly along an accepted narrative trajectory for much longer than I should have. Frankly, it's rather humiliating.

There I was, cruising along with the same story playing through my head, a story told to me by my mother since I was a child. And it became a story I told myself. But it turned out this was really her narrative, the story she needed to tell herself to explain me to her. It had some to do with me but not a whole lot.

So why did I believe? Well, because she was my mother. And it was a nice story.  I wanted to believe it.

But it could not hold. Things started happening to me — ferocious things — that just didn't make sense, didn't sync, with my narrative.

You see, I was told I was a nice boy. I imagined I had friends, that despite my penchant for rude, dismissive, obnoxious rants, I was still somehow, well, charming and interesting. And while I may once in a while be "too much," I was still a nice boy so all was forgiven.

Oy, was I wrong. It turns out my know-it-all conceit and intellectual bullying combined with an aggressive propensity to offend social sensibilities was not charming or interesting. It was, and remains, assholish.

This was a startling fact to suddenly realize (yes, I brazenly split my infinitives): I am not, nor have I been, a nice boy. In fact, I've been an asshole for most, if not all, of my life. It was like the end of The Sixth Sense: he's dead all along! And you suddenly reread the entire film in light of this revelation and it all makes sense. This was me: I've been an asshole all along! And I found myself rereading my life, all those relationships and encounters, and it all made sense!

Now, please understand, this was not a harrowing moment — startling, yes, but not harrowing. And, in saying this, I am not asking for someone to say, "Oh, you're not really an asshole." On the contrary! I am relieved as my assholeness explains so much. I am grateful for this revelation. And, no, not because I can now mend my ways and become a nice boy. But because now I can embrace my asshole ways and adjust my readings of my place in the world accordingly. It's actually quite beautiful.

In any case, my point is not about whether I'm an asshole or not (what is an asshole? What do I mean by asshole? This is a matter for another time). My point is this: We tell ourselves stories to make sense of our place in this life, to explain what we should do, to explain others' reactions, to explain our own reactions. And we can forget that they are stories, that they are interpretations. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious douchebag, we are text.

Which is to say, we are other to ourselves. Our lives ask — demand — to be read. Now, I was about to say it demands to be read just as we read any text. But that's absurd. My life — all the things that have happened to me — and the latest Houellebecq novel are quite different.  But their difference is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. Both are texts only they have different resonances — and different ways of resonating — with our bodies and ways of going.

(My reading of Houellebecq has reoriented my life in nearly as dramatic fashion as my reading of my own life — if not more. In fact, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories we read — in novels, philosophy, film, the media — begin to mix, to conspire into a common network of stories: a story of stories. Enter Debord, amongst others. So careful what you ingest — and how you ingest it.)

Since my revelation seven or so years ago, I have become a more active, vigilant reader of my narrative. And this is how it should be. After all, the past does not determine the future. I am tempted to say the contrary: our present recasts our past and, in so doing, reorients our future. And as the events of our present are always changing, necessarily, then our narratives are always changing. It's like a network of threads — a web — and how I toss it, cast it, gesture with it now reshapes the entire thing, backwards and forwards.

This reshaping — this reorienting — is relentless. We are constantly recasting ourselves and it's gorgeous.


ayşegül said...

How can only one reading of yourself be satisfying enough? The devilish nature I found in myself very late in my life (well not as late as yours but close enough) horrified me but it was actually what I was looking for. Rewriting the whole story, that's interesting. Even the past is not fixed, everything changes in that moment of enlightenment that shows you that you were not who you thought you were. Every gesture you thought was 'beautiful' becomes something that is devilish. And not at all beautiful. Just bad, asshole way as you say. But this discovery is beautiful. It is like meeting another but very interesting person that you know a lot about but actually, you know nothing about his essence, a whole new story could be written on the same life because it is not the same life anymore. Discovering and therefore having other resources to create. Aren't all these enlightening moments to make a difference?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Aysegul! Always a pleasure to converse with you....

You said it quite nicely: the revelation itself might not be beautiful but the act of making sense, of ordering all this mayhem of one's life, is beautiful. To meet yourself again, and again....

And taking the time, and rigor, to make sense of it ALL is intense (even if absurd). It's a will that comes, perhaps, later in life — for me, it was becoming a father (a cliche but no less poignant for it).

I believe, like all readings of anything, that a good reading is generous, multiple, expansive, incomplete. So my "asshole" reading is, of course, much more elaborate than I offer here. And even what I mean by "asshole" is multiple: one man's asshole is another's delight (yes, that's supposed to be funny).

And, yes, I believe these enlightening moments, this self-narrating, does make a difference — a profound difference. They become inflection points. That's my whole point: reading oneself, and often, is profound, shaping time itself — and your place in it.

My first great intellectual interest was history because, in high school, a Marxist teacher gave us revisionist histories to read. They were incredible, changing my entire sense of where I was living and what was happening around me.

Once I started doing this to myself — doing rigorous, aggressive rereadings of myself — my entire orientation in the world shifted. And continues to shift. Because, as you say, nothing — not even the past — is done. It's all in motion, waiting to be nudged by our interpretive faculties and actions.

And the joy, the beauty, is that you do indeed get to meet yourself over and over again. I love that.

ayşegül said...

And I love how you express it, the joy of living oozing out in your every sentence. Your being an asshole is my delight, yes. And it is funny.

ayşegül said...

Funny is not enough, it is funky! In the weirdest way.

Daniel Coffeen said...

You're kind, as usual. And I'll take "funky," with pleasure. As I said, one man's — woman's — asshole...

what the Tee Vee taught said...

It's quite nice, perfect for the Turkey holiday: we are interpretations of stories.

Everybody in my family is already telling the story of what will happen in the next two... three days. Everybody knows the story, they get it, now is not the time to change the script — stay in character!... easier that way.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, the perennial question: to risk havoc with script changes or stick to roles until it's over....I wish you good tidings however you play it.