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.