A Short Reflection on Icelandic History

I am at a Medieval and Renaissance Literature Forum this weekend. It’s pretty official.

Academics depress me, though. Especially when they are all talking about the same things.

But I went to this panel discussion today, and one of the presenters was talking about Icelandic literature. I don’t know much about Icelandic literature, and I don’t care to know much more than I do, but something this woman said blew me away.

In the 13th century, the Icelandic Commonwealth dissolved, leaving Icelanders to fend mostly for themselves. As a result, much of the literature the Icelanders had written down on animal hides were used as clothing.

People were  literally  walking around with stories on their backs. I wonder if we do this, too. I wonder if we  wear stories of our past on our back. I think we do.

Sometimes walking around with our story is really difficult, but what’s encouraging about the Icelanders is if our stories are clothing, we can change clothes at any time.

Righting Texts

When friends get in a relationship, one of my favorite things to say to them is that they are in a “honeymoon phase.” That lovey dovey feeling? Not going to last forever. Those feelings aren’t “real” love. And I am completely qualified to say things like that. It’s true.  Because single 21-year-old males are easily the most qualified to make claims like that.

I’m in this class on the psychology of narrative this quarter. And I was reading an essay by Michael White today about the analogies psychologists use to explain human relationships and stories. For a long time, beginning with Freud, the only analogies used by psychologists were that of science – either machines or organisms. These analogies do a lot of things correctly, but they have a major short-coming: they pathologize any deviation from what is considered the norm. If there is a break down in a machine, it stops working. If there is a break down in an organism, it gets sick.

Ironically, as White points out, the biologic and machine analogies are static. A scientific system can only be one way. It does not allow for multiple truths. So when the “honeymoon phase” passes, the assumption is that the objective reality of the issue is that there was always some glaring problem in the relationship.

White thinks we can reject this position by using another analogy. If relationships are seen like a text, then the “honeymoon” phase and the phase after become competing texts. Neither is any more true or any more real than the other. Thus, White suggests, the couple can identify the text they like the most and why and construct a relationship that involves those things.

There is an idea floating around out there that genetics is much more intimately influenced by our choices than we ever thought. Some people think that genes that we activate during our life time are more likely to be passed on to our children. That’s incredible to me. And it seems impossible. That’s how I feel about changing stories, or “texts.” It feels impossible. It feels like someone telling us “Just change your story” is simplistic and overly reductive. And that’s true: it is overly reductive.

You can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are never going to leave your honeymoon phase. You have to make a commitment to incorporating the story you want into the reality of day-to-day life. But it’s possible.

Your life is not a machine. One messed up thing does not ruin it. That wrong thing is just a story that doesn’t have an end yet. Write (right) it.


Two Incomplete Problems with Living a Better Story

At the start of the year, I wrote a post about telling a better story. It’s a hard task. There are two problems that I’ve run across already. I have a blog so I get to share these things. It’s a nice arrangement.

1) I should take every opportunity to tell a good story. I was listening to The Moth, one of my favorite podcasts, today. The Moth is a series that features true stories told live without notes, and it’s awesome. Today, I listened to a story from Salman Rushdie, best-selling author of several novels including The Satanic Verses. His story took place while he was working on Verses. He ended up getting writer’s block and traveled to Nicaragua to “experience a revolution.” His story was about war and about the inequality that existed in that country. But he told it with an insane amount of humor and poise, and I had two thoughts: First, should he really be telling the story like that? Shouldn’t he be talking about how horrible it was and how bad war is and all that? But then I realized that this story was decades in the past. Humanity needs to laugh at itself. Second, sometimes we need to tell a sad story happily.

I started thinking about what my life would be like if I stopped dealing in failure and started dealing in success. What if, instead of talking about how many things Freud got wrong, I talked about all of the things he got right? I suppose people would start to call me a Freudian, but perhaps that’s just because they don’t understand.

2) To tell a better story, you have to know who the main character is. Spoiler alert: it’s you. This is not to say you need to know exactly who you are. That’s never going to happen. This is to say that you need to know a few things about yourself and you need to live knowing those things are true. My heart is different than yours. And your heart is different than mine, and that effects how we live our lives.

If you want to know more about telling a better story, I feel like you should visit Donald Miller’s blog. All of my ideas are reflections on his.

Telling a Better New Year

As I have taken my first, cautious steps into the new year, I have been reading a lot of Donald Miller. He’s really good to read when starting a new year because he is all about living a better story. I have been thinking a lot about stories, and I have resolved to live a better one this year.

But part of living a better story, I think, is telling a better story.

I was home on break for most of December, and I think it was the longest amount of time I’ve spent there in perhaps a year. With that came running into and interacting with some people I hadn’t really seen since high school. One night, while reflecting on these interactions, I had a horrible realization – I was still judging a lot of these people based on things they did in middle school. That worried me.

It worried me because it seemed childish. It is childish.

At some point, I need to let go of that story. I need to let go of my junior high story, of my peers’ junior high stories. It’s boring.

My friend recently got rid of all of her young adult fiction. Not the good stuff, like Catcher in the Rye or anything like that. The faux-dark, teenage-angst stuff. She sent me a picture of all of the books boxed up. She was making room for new literature.

I think I don’t do that enough with my life. I hold on to all of the silly young adult theatrics, and because of that, I can’t live a better story. So this year, I’m going to recognize that while my first 21 years have been freakin’ awesome, they are perhaps little more than the first chapter of my life story. And that’s a pretty cool place to be.

I Want to Hear Your Story

Everyone has a story. I have a story. You have a story. Your ex has a story. Your best friend has a story. Your professor has a story. Your parents have stories.

It is really important that every story gets told. Stories keep us human. That’s why we cry at movies and chuckle at books. Stories keep us human.

Everyone has a different way to tell her story. Some use music. Some use writing. Some use speaking. Some use art. Some use technology.

It is really important that every story gets told. This year, figure out how to tell your story.

Give a Friendly Reminder to the Machine

Yesterday, I woke up with a parking ticket on my car. Mondays with parking tickets are generally advised against. It’s a sure fire way to allow yourself be tempted into complaining for the rest of the day. But I made a decision. In keeping with my consciousness against complaining I decided that I would take five minutes to complain to my mother, and then I would let it go. And no one else would know about it for the rest of the day. That was the plan.

Then, something really cool happened. It turned out that the fine on the ticket was for $0, meaning I only had to pay $0! Apparently, the ticket was just a “friendly reminder.” Now, I don’t know about where you are from. But where I am from, parking tickets aren’t generally written as “friendly reminders.” And it just kind of made me feel good about the whole humanity thing.

I started thinking. If everyone gave everyone else friendly reminders, we could change the world. So often, we think the only vehicle for change is direct confrontation or raging against the system. But most of the time, raging against the system doesn’t really get anywhere. Surely, there are times when radical action needs to be taken, but if we lovingly criticized each other more, the need for radical action would become less and less.

There’s something about friendly reminders – they are based in narrative. When the parking cop left a friendly reminder on my car she was probably thinking, “Oh I remember once when I couldn’t find a place to park and I was just a couple of hours late in moving my car.” She was identifying with my story.

I find this to be terribly true in my own life. It is so difficult to give anything other than a friendly reminder to people whom I know and interact with on a daily basis. And I think it’s fine. It allows us to trust each other, to actually contemplate what we are saying to each other. It’s easy to rage against a faceless nameless story-less machine. But there is no such thing.

Extra Extra!

Sometimes when I’m watching movies or television shows, I find myself wondering what the stories of the extras are. One of my favorite shows is Community. There’s this one episode of Community from Season 2 where pop-culture-obsessed Abed tells universal-cool-guy Jeff Winger about when he got to be an extra in his favorite television show Cougartown. All Abed had to do was walk down the street in the background of this scene, but to do so, he constructed a whole back-story in his head and got so far into character that when the director yelled cut, he had an existential crisis.

I love this scene. I love it because it shows us the absurdity of story-telling. Now don’t get me wrong, I love stories, but stories can never really give a full picture of an event or feeling. Nothing can, really. And the trouble with great story-telling is that when we love a character we often forget about all of the seemingly unimportant people that help the story along. In books, authors can limit the number of characters. There aren’t really extras in books. There are crowds. But these crowds are more amorphous blobs than individuals. But in movies, there are extras. Movies would feel empty without them.

What’s the story behind Army Guy #2 who gets shot and dies? Does he have a family? Did they know that he loves them? Did he know that they loved him? Was he in the army because he needed to support his sickly mother? Was he planning on going to school after his service? We don’t know. We don’t ask. We don’t care.

Everyone has a story, and we do ourselves a disservice when we marginalize all of those everyones to extras. Because if we foster a world where there are extras, then we easily become extras to other people, too.

We have to remember when we consume stories, that no matter how clear we think the lines of right and wrong, or good and evil, or Jedi and Sith are drawn, there exist other stories that will inevitably skew those lines. Darth Vader’s generals probably have similarly heart-wrenching stories of how they came to the dark side. But we don’t care. We cheer when Han Solo kills one or two.

Who have you been treating as an “extra” lately?