Assembling Ourselves

I tell stories. I like doing it, and sometimes I do it well. I know what a story is; stories always have the same structure and pattern. Every story begins with a tension - usually the dis-ease caused by two seemingly irreconcilable opposites - and moves through time until the tension is resolved. Stories can be based in actual events or not as the case may be but all stories are fabrications. Think about it. Of all the hundreds of incidents that occur in the course of any given day, why do you tell some as stories of the day, and let the rest slip into oblivion? The fact that you are telling a story at all means that you have made a choice of one incident over a range of other possible ones. And then, as you tell the incident you won't tell every detail. You will select and choose, highlight some details and downplay others. Your story will be told in such a way as to bring about some purpose: to arouse interest, get a laugh, illustrate a point, evoke sympathy... whatever. In other words, all stories, even the most "factual" and "true" involve the selection and omission of details, and the ordering of those details into a pattern. All stories are fabrications. The way we select and fabricate our stories tells us an awful lot about ourselves because the pattern is an imposition of our own devising and will reflect who and what we are.

One of our fabricated stories is our own autobiography. I had an illustration of this once. On my first trip the USA I had occasion to drive several different cars. When I got back to New Zealand, I noticed that in my memory of those events, I was seated on the right hand side of the car, and driving the car on the left hand side of the road. My memory was obviously in error: I had, unconsciously, changed the memory of driving in the USA to fit with the realities of driving cars in New Zealand. I think we do this unconsciously, in a thousand subtle or gross ways, with all our memories, and with all the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we see ourselves, the things we choose to remember or forget, the things we highlight and downplay are a fabrication: a kind of fiction.

For instance, the picture above was taken by my daughter Catherine and heavily edited by me. I like it because I think it says something about me. But it isn't real. It's a fabrication, a picture which talks not about how I am seen but how I would like to be seen. In a similar way, out of the myriad events that have happened to us, we invent our past select and polish it and give it meaning. Or, to put it more starkly, we invent ourselves and give ourselves meaning - and in more matters than just our life story.

Think of a computer. It is not so much one appliance as a whole suite of appliances. They may all be hidden away in one tin box, but there are disk drives and disk drive controllers, video cards, sound cards, logic units and buses and dozens of others, all of them discrete individual components, plugged together by bits of cable or by solder to give the illusion of one working unit (and in my computer at the moment the illusion is pretty tenuous. Ho hum). A similar thing happens inside our heads. Our brains are not so much a wonderful biological instrument as a whole suite of wonderful biological instruments. Our brain is a system of systems: several hundred complex systems working together closely enough to give the illusion of one working system. There is not one of all those systems that is the place where me and my personality reside. Not one place in the brain, not one system is "me". Rather, me, my personality is a sort of a story: a pattern imposed on all that information and processing. I am a fiction, a story made up by selecting some bits of information and discarding others; by highlighting and downplaying; by ordering and reshaping; by recognising and ignoring. There is a sense in which all this shaping is done by me, the thing that is being shaped (and there's a concept to tie your cerebral processes in a knot) but I don't consciously do that shaping, at least most of the time.

So where does this pattern come from? Good question, that. I think it arises socially: it comes from our life in community, but I'll talk about that some other time.


Anonymous said…
Bonhoeffer said it very nicely:

Nietzsche does us service as well, on the way memory and pride play tricks on us. Ricoeur is among the best of recent writers, on how the cogito opaque to itself (what we would call the noetic effects of sin) and needs other to mirror itself toward some approximation of reality.
VenDr said…
Thank you so much for the Bonhoeffer poem - I did not know it and it's wonderful. Thanks also for the url of Religion On Line - a great resource which I hadn't been aware of before.
NIE said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
Without god what is reflected back to any individual is likely to be unhelpful .Only within a community of faith is there chance for us to be seen as god sees us ... to be known and loved...
Sometimes I know how inadequate I am when relating to another and I ask Jesus consciousness to be there between me and the other person -but it occurs to me that I should always operate like that!...
We never really know the other persons true story let alone our own.
We are blessed if we meet one or two friends in a life time with whom we can be completely honest- with whom we can begin to grow in honesty about ourselves.
NIE said…
Coincidence! I thought of you and stories today as I read "The NZ Listener" Aug 2-8 article on Alan Loney, who described a work entitled :"The Erasure Tapes" as "an autobiography in which I refuse to tell the story of my life". To explain the comment the writer of the article quotes a poem from this 1994 work:

We cannot rearrange

our past - We rearrange our past
all the time - We have fashioned

a garden where the flowers
have always now come out
Tillerman said…
Anonymous, (comment above nie's comment) -

With great respect I would resist the idea that “Only within a community of faith is there a chance for us to be seen as God sees us … to be known and loved…” I am sure that within communities of faith this process most certainly happens and this is very good. But to isolate and split off the idea of love and the sacred in this way and by implication to make it seem to rest upon certain exclusive groups of people (despite the fact that their attitudes and intentions may be ones of inclusiveness and a reaching out to others) seems to me to take the idea of love and the sacred out of nature and out of ordinary human nature.
When this happens the scared becomes associated with a priestly caste of some sort who control and mediate this stuff and make up the rules, or with particular rites and ceremonies or with a particular day of the week, or a particular definition of what the word "God" means – the result is that the sacred and the ability “to be known and loved” becomes not the property of all life and all men and women but of only some.
It no longer becomes the ever present possibility in the everyday affairs of all people of every religious and secular philosophy and persuasion but the exclusive preserve of those that think and agree with “us”.
Is an atheist outside a community of faith, who loves unconditionally not expressing what a community of faith would define as “the love of God” ? Is it not possible for anyone to be known and loved in the right kind of caring environment? Is not the love of an atheist the "love of God" by another name?

Having disagreed with you on that point I heartily agree with this statement you make:

"We are blessed if we meet one or two friends in a life time with whom we can be completely honest- with whom we can begin to grow in honesty about ourselves."

This is indeed so true and is an extremely powerful sort of medicine for the soul. Often this friend is ones wife or lover (lover only if one is single Of Course :-) and - religious or atheist doesn't matter) - a poem I read recently expressed this power:

"... the hand set quietly on the others flank
That carries news from another world
Light-years away from the one inside
That you always thought you inhabited alone
The heat in that hand could melt a stone."
Anonymous said…
Tillerman... thank you for your correction. I should have worded what I said differently. Should have used more words!
Community of love = community of faith. Yes - the atheist could well be creating that community in every area of his life. I certainly don't think a community of faith is only found in a church setting, nor is a community of faith necessarily in the Christian tradition.
I do think that to see ourselves as god see us is very difficult for most mere mortals. Is it even more difficult perhaps to see others as god sees them.
It is really a mystery this 'being known' ...complete truth and love between people is so rare.
And , to me it is more the mystery to be seen and known and yet loved by god.
The poem is very beautiful. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
I also think that our ability to listen to a story or reminiscence that someone else is telling of an occasion when we were also present, and to hear it as their story without being compelled to correct it to the truth as we know it, gives us insight into ourselves. I love the game that you and your daughters play as described in Assembling Ourselves II. It is the way that I will deal with others trying to impose their view of the past on my story.

My nana always said "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story"