Imagine you are going back to your high school and giving the students a speech about life, academics, success, hardship, identity and/or the pursuit of happiness. What would you tell them?
I come from a small, somewhat isolated town. When I was in high school, I was closeted, sheltered, and, in many senses, pre-conscious to where I am in life now. My outlet in those days was storytelling, which become a way of connecting to others and re-envisioning my life as it might be — stories became a place of exchange and representation, as well as realization of myself and others through the liberating lens of ‘fiction.’ Long before I came out, I wrote stories about queer individuals, displaying my own internal (and somewhat unconscious) concept of self, as opposed to the very bland one my overlarge Old Navy jackets, bursting backpack, and quantum physics-related shirts broadcasted (although these certainly told a part of my personality). At the same time, working for my school newspaper, I began talking to people in my school’s community whom I likely would never have come into contact with ordinarily in my AP classes or extracurriculars — people whose appearance very simply stated “jock,” “gangster,” “cheerleader,” and many other of the cliched labels that abound in high school. In talking to them in an interview format — in which they were encouraged to share their own stories — I came to learn things about them that I never would have if I had simply judged them by appearance or talked to them in a more social situation. This is about when I learned that everyone has something interesting about them, some interesting experience or story to tell, and, thus, incredible value.
This probably sounds like an anticlimactic epiphany, but its implications are far reaching. How many times have you encountered someone of whom you’ve thought, “I don’t care for them,” or “I could never live as they do,” or any other type of judgment? Next time you think one such thought about a person, though, consider that they aren’t just the external image, the outward actor, that you encounter. They are a multi-dimension, deeply internal person, just as you are. They have the same constant rush of thoughts that runs about in your mind. They have the same emotional valences. They have the same buried broken spots. Everybody does. Which is simply spectacular.
A useful metaphor here is of life as a tapestry, one which W. Somerset Maugham elaborates in his novel Of Human Bondage:
As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern… Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful… Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.
Narrative, life crafted into art, thus becomes of immense use and immense power. It becomes a way of relating to people, of viewing and exploring the cast richness of existence and the world that we occupy but too often glance over with disinterested eye. It also becomes a way of aligning communities not along divisive labels or difference, like religion, class, race, sexual orientation, etc., but along structural similarities, upon immediate experience, which can cross such boundaries, is never exclusive to a certain group. In this way, narrative can help us become more empathetic individuals with fewer conflicts.
Moreover, this isn’t just nice philosophizing; there’s a new field of neuroscience which is finding that humans are hardwired to empathize with others, and that the uniquely human capacity for narrative aids us in doing this. As science writer Jeremy Rifkin summarizes:
We are strange creatures. We can put our meaning above our survival. There is no dividing line between what one is and what one ought to be. To our knowledge, we are unique among the animal species in that we are the only ones who tell stories. We live by narrative. Concepts like the past, present, future and the resolution of conflict are all introduced to the child by way of narrative. Narrative is critical to transforming empathic distress to empathic engagement. We are each a composite of the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us.
Thus, I leave you all with the questions: What will your story be? What pattern will it take? Who will you share it with? Whose will you listen to and observe for its own singular artisanry?