So, I’ve been thinking about storytellers, story-telling, and stories. And, this is what I am thinking.
When I think about the job of telling or “playing back” another person’s story, it seems to me that at any given moment a storyteller is always telling at least three stories. There is the story s/he wants to tell, the story s/he is actually telling, and the story or stories that s/he implies in the telling of the two other stories.
For example, a woman who is visibly happy can tell a story in which she characterizes herself as being unhappy and, from that contrast, we can infer many other plausible stories about her life.
After some work in rehearsal last week, it dawned on me that, in social circles, I often get myself into trouble because I respond to the story a person is unintentionally telling rather than the story he wants to tell. The result, invariably, is that the storyteller is shocked, annoyed, or unsettled by my response.
So, from now on, I am going to work very hard to respond only to the story a person wants to tell and I suspect that some people might be somewhat suspicious of this choice.
I think this suspicion will arise if one supposes i) a person always tells one story that is the truest of those told and ii) we have an obligation to respond only to the truest story or, more strongly, iii) we have an obligation to compel the teller to acknowledge the truest story as being the most true.
Many of us think along these lines, it seems to me, because we were raised in “the therapeutic age”. Although the essential mindset of this age technically originates in Catholicism, where right action is insufficient without right intention, it probably only came to dominate culture in the early 20th Century because of the widespread popularity of Freud’s theories.
Under the Freudian model, in order to resolve a patient’s symptoms, it is the job of the therapist to force the patient to disregard the false stories she tells herself and to confront and accept her truest story. For Freud himself, the truest story was always some version of the Oedipal Complex.
Now without getting into the question of whether or not this therapeutic model is useful for the treatment of mental illness, my point is simple: I’m not a therapist and no person I meet is my patient. So, rather than presuming I know what a person’s truest story is, I should work very hard to understand and respond to the story a person wants to tell me, himself, and others.
I should note: I’m not saying I should necessarily believe a person’s story. I am only saying that I should recognize that is, in fact, her story. Lots of people tell false stories about themselves and, however false they may be, they remain their stories and it is not my job to tell them otherwise.
Sure, there will be times when circumstance requires me to force a person to see the other stories she communicates but those circumstances are rare. More often than not, even in cases of conflict between me and the other person, it will make more sense to acknowledge her story as her story rather than try and convince her that it really isn’t her story. Under most circumstances, I should leave it to the storyteller to decide if she is lying to herself.
Moreover, I suspect, in the long run, the best way to help a person acknowledge the other stories he tells is by first acknowledging the story he wants to tell. Remember, a person is often afraid to share his most precious stories precisely because other people have too often told him the story he wants to tell is really not his story. We repress our most precious stories, I think, precisely because we fear people won’t acknowledge them as our stories.
Questions? Comments? Elaborations?