The Old Stories We Tell

Storytelling makes us human. (Of course, so do tears, credit cards, and Swiss Army knives.) In light of JD Salinger’s death this week, it makes sense to pause and honor what his storytelling taught me. I never understood that there was a point to literature until I read Catcher in the Rye in 10th grade. I had long been under poetry’s spell and I relished a good non-fiction read, but I just didn’t quite understand the novel yet. And then I met Holden Caulfield.

With the help of my gifted English teacher (the curmudgeonly, if brilliant, Mr. Bartelt), I came to see that Holden’s story was an emotional one. It was a painful one, and, like any good mystical sacrament, the outward events of the novel mirrored the inner events of Holden’s psychological life.

I remember that I kept checking myself, “Can a story really be about something like this? Can we really write and read novels about psychiatrists and mental breakdowns? In literature, do we really get to talk about the hard stuff?” Yes, yes, and yes.  Trite as it may seem, this revelation was liberating and continues to inspire me today.

Something else my English teacher taught me about Holden inspired me–but in a different direction. To emphasize what was happening to Holden’s personhood throughout the novel, Mr. Bartelt would often say to us, “Holden is unraveling like a cheap, proverbial sweater.” He would repeat this over and over, wheeling his hands to mimic an unwieldy ball of yarn. “Holden is unraveling like a cheap, proverbial sweater.”

Every time Mr. Bartlet said this, a little voice deep inside my body would whisper, “so am I.” Without going into the gory details, this insight proved to be true for my 15 year old self. But it is no longer true.

In ordinary circumstances, I’d be the first to defend our ancient narrative impulse. In so many ways, I’ve staked my life on the story. And that’s precisely the problem. To study stories, like I have done, is one thing. To teach stories, like I do, is one thing. To write stories, like I try to do, is one thing. But, to believe the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, like I always do, is entirely another.

Moment by moment, our “monkey mind” chatters at us. It tells us what’s going on, as it sees it. And while there are times when this information can be life-saving and invaluable (DANGER: Semi-truck swerving into our lane!), there are times when this information is distracting, useless, and completely inaccurate (Patty took 5 hours to respond to my email; I obviously did something to offend her. OR, my personal favorite, The boss wants to see me in his office; obviously I’m getting fired). We are not the only people in the world. And we are not the only people in other people’s lives. In other words, it’s not all about us.

More to the point, “us” changes. Constantly. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can be just as distracting, useless, and inaccurate as the stories we tell about others. What I told myself about myself at 15 may have been true then, but it is true no more. Yet, I continue, at 32, to tell myself variations on this story: I’ll never get it all figured out, there will always be something wrong with me, etc. etc.

And while the Buddhists among us might be tempted to point out that, technically, we will never get it all figured out and that, yes, technically, we will always feel a trifle incomplete, that is not the point I’m making here. I’m making the point that we grow and our stories need to grow with us.

What have stories taught you about our collective human experience? What stories about yourself have you outgrown?

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One response to “The Old Stories We Tell

  1. Pingback: Tapas « Hope McAllister Miller

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