Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Telling Stories

Patterns, reality maps, world views are all critical and far-reaching things. They are our models for how the world works and we rely on them to predict and control and live in the world. Know this: they not only describe what we think the world is, they also describe who we think we are.

Sometimes the model is altered. This is simply learning. I was wrong, X is possible, so X is added to the map where Y used to be. You can discover that you were stronger or weaker than you expected. You can learn about the world and you can learn about yourself.

Sometimes the model is shattered.

I'm reading "Aftermath" by Susan Brison. It is about her on-going recovery from an incident of rape and attempted murder. It is fascinating and important, but not necessarily on the surface. In other words, I wouldn't recommend this book to a rape survivor, but I would to a rape counselor.

In this book, regardless of the author's intent, I am reading as she takes a world map that has been shattered to the point that her entire identity is altered unrecognizably (isn't that the same as destroyed?) and she puts it back together. She tells herself a story, by trial and error, piece by piece, each painstakingly tied to the things that she remembers were important to her before the attack with the goal that it will all make sense.

This is why I can't recommend it to another rape survivor: "each painstakingly tied to the things that she remembers were important to her before the attack". Before the attack she was an academic, a philosopher, politically active... the story she is telling herself pays tribute to and is carefully tied to her memory of the way the "real" (pre-assault) Professor Brison thought, believed and what she valued. Where it is hopelessly inadequate e.g. "The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge- as impersonal, as purely contemplative as it is possible for man to attain." - Bertran Russell.

This is the ideal of the academic philosopher and it is inadequate even in the chaos of normal interaction with normal people. It is ludicrous in the aftermath of soul-shattering violence. The author, in very strict academic style, works to bridge the gap between what she experienced and what she feels about it and the way she has been taught is proper to think. She builds the bridge carefully and the book, so far, is a wonderful example of bridge building... but it is not a bridge, I think, that many could use.

The world is a big place, and our lives are complex beyond imagining and fun and challenging and sweet. We are who we are; but our identity, who we think we are, is a beautiful and fragile work of art. It is a story we tell ourselves.

But this is the truth- the world is big and we are small. There are things and events that can crush us like bugs on a windshield. No matter who we are. No matter how much we train. No matter what weapons we own and carry or how well we pay attention. For most of us it will never matter and we can continue to tell our beautiful stories. For many (for all, in the end) the story ends in death and the destruction of the identity coincides with the physical destruction of themselves, a closure and oblivion. For a very few, the fragile construct of the identity is destroyed but the body lives. And they must tell a new story, must create a world view and an identity where there is some plot logic. And they will tie the story to the things that are supposed to make sense. And they will use extreme mental gymnastics and sometimes very twisted logic to tie it into a neat little package.

Who can exist without their constructed identity? That's the goal, right Mac? To be the self without needing the identity. To experience without needing a story.

Imagine an ant hill and an eight-year-old with a magnifying glass and firecrackers. The ants have their culture, their history. They are the Invincible Army. They are the Chosen of the Creator. They are the Summit of Evolution. And they are burned and blasted by forces beyond their understanding, beyond their control or prediction... by an eight-year-old.

What story do the survivors tell? They will tell one, and it will make sense if you don't look at it too closely. Their world will be shattered and so will their identity, but they will weave a new one with a story.


Mac said...

And that is the conundrum - to be the Self without the identity - to identify with the unchangeable Self, the Self that does not and can not interact but that forms the unshakeable and untouchable basis of all that Is. And the beauty of it is that we are still our identities - raging, loving, crying, trying and dying; feeling and being. Being destroyed and rebuilding, if possible. The house can be burned down, but the ground it stood on remains. The new house may be totally different, better or, perhaps, worse. But the ground remains. And after we leave the house, new folks move in; but the ground remains. Such beauty, and such despair. But pain only lives in the there.

Kai Jones said...

I have felt so empty because I won't force my identity into the story I feel compelled by other people's expectations to tell. I am left with "I don't know. I did this and I am this regardless." And they hate it: I contradict their world view both by existing and by refusing to tell their story as my own.