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Discussion in 'Essays' started by ChrisA, Jan 22, 2007.

  1. ChrisA Guest

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    Kierkegaard’s famous dictum, “Life must be lived forwards, but understood backwards,” has always struck me as a non-negotiable fact. We imbue our lives with meaning only after experiencing something, and for this reason, only in retrospect do things make sense.

    In understanding life “backwards,” my sense of the past seems to be organized around spots of memory. As I consciously evoke these spots of memory, I find that each spot expands into a scene from a vast life-story. What if I could evoke my whole life-story at once? What would I see?

    In the mind’s eye, when consciously evoked, a single memory expands and grows larger and more voluminous. This spot of memory may blossom into a scene of memory, vivid with sensory details and spatial orientation. The sheer elasticity of our long-term memory is baffling. As spots of memory expand into scenes of memory and scenes of memory expand into sections of the vast life-story, we begin to get a sense of the infinite past contained within each of us.

    Although I have been using the term “life-story,” in actuality, many stories make up the vast narrative of who I am. The “life-story” is more like a loose web that holds together all of the events and experiences from my past. Closely examining these stories, I find them contradictory and ambiguous. My first impulse is to reject opposing stories about myself, but this is what makes me human. Remember Whitman:

    Do I contradict myself?

    Very well then . . . I contradict myself.

    I am large . . . I contain multitudes.

    I have dominant and recessive stories just as I have dominant and recessive genes. Take for example the stories I tell myself, such as “I am not desirable,” or “I am always behind in my work,” or “I will never achieve what I hope for.” Each of these negative scripts has a positive equivalent located somewhere in my past. That is, at one point in my life, I have told myself just the opposite, something like “I am confident and always prepared,” or “I know I will achieve my dreams.”

    Which one is true? Both? Neither? It all depends upon which story happens to dominate my consciousness at any given time. Typically I am helpless in the face of my stories, almost thrown into a certain limited view of myself. However, if I am able to detach from the story, then I may be able to glimpse the underlying ambiguity and open-endedness of every single real-life scenario. When I acknowledge that my temporal view is merely a fiction with no fixed reality, I immediately open up an alternative view, and then another, and another.

    The skeptic will say, “Yes, but some stories are better than others, which is why we privilege certain interpretations.” To this I agree. Nevertheless, the most “accurate” story is still a story. A story is a vehicle to understand reality. When the vehicle limits, constrains or impairs the individual, it ceases to be effective. Almost unconsciously, I mistake a story for reality, and thereby cling to a version of the truth that is debilitating.

    Earlier I spoke about the elastic nature of memory. The elastic nature of memory suggests that the deeper I examine my life, the more non-linear and ambiguous it appears. Probing any single negative story of my past, I discover that the underlying reality is also abundant with many positive interpretations. My tendency however is to rely on a single interpretation or story (about myself, about others), but this ground dissolves once I acknowledge the possibility of another interpretation, contradicting my original one.

    Based upon my experience writing a novel, I have found that there is a sort of open architecture to the vast life-story. I can enter the life-story at any point in time, any spot or scene or section of memory. By probing the past, I can dissect a story I have taken for reality and experiment with following a different line of reasoning. For example, perhaps I believe my mother is “killing herself” by over-eating and living an unhealthy lifestyle. This is a story I have told myself about my mother over and over again. In the past, I have witnessed her eat greasy foods and watched her reject any form of exercise. It hurts me to see my mother “killing herself”. If I re-examine the situation surrounding my mother, I may find that she is not really “killing herself” at all. Maybe my mother is depressed and I am only making the situation worse by blaming her for her unhealthy lifestyle. Perhaps I can create a new story about my mother. Perhaps I can generate positive emotions instead of negative ones by creating a story that says my mother needs my help and my love.

    Altering life stories can have a profound effect. It is unfortunate, then, that we are almost blind to the entry points in the vast life-story, the scenes of memory where we can revise the past. New ways of seeing are somehow just out of view. This is because the stories we tell ourselves are not just stories anymore; they have become confused with reality. They are linked to behaviors that reinforce the story on conscious and subconscious levels. Every day we project old stories into our environments, imprinting the world with habitual, harmful, or stagnant ways of seeing.

    While it is important to examine the past in order to create new storylines, it may be even more important to learn how to live “without stories”. How capable am I of suspending my critical judgment? How capable am I of withholding my stories and interpretations of reality? I see more when I refrain from commenting on every aspect of my life. I see more possibility, more variability and more uncertainty. Reality is the space of “what happens” before words are formed to describe and interpret. Reality is the rich, ambiguous space of life and consciousness. It eludes interpretation; it can only be experienced.



    Posted By ChrisA | Jan 22, 2007

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