The Dangerous Allure of Narrative
How our longing to place ourselves in a story can lead us down twisty paths
Every day I walk for an hour in my house- I don’t own a treadmill, and since the snow filled my back yard with knee deep drifts- I walk in a path through my downstairs. This is insanely boring, so I turn the TV on to have something to listen to, but I don’t want it to be too interesting, or I would stop walking and sit down. So due to scheduling and middling interest, I listen to ABC’s show, The View.
Most days it’s perfect. Their conversations are predictable enough that I keep pace and knock out my steps for the day. But today they interviewed a woman who had been a follower of Qanon and no longer was. She was sharing her story of how it happened to her. I sat down.
You can watch the interview here. What struck me about her story was the intense sense of purpose finding herself inside a narrative created for her. Though the narrative of Q is dark and crazy, she was reinforced by others, also inside the story, and it dominated her every waking hour. Being inside of the narrative is a dangerous place to go.
What I mean by using the phrase “inside the narrative” is believing you have found yourself inside a story line and imagine that your knowledge of this storyline will somehow give you power or control of it. A simple example from my life: When I was living in Washington DC after college, I would fly up to New Hampshire to visit my family, and would often take one of those really small airplane rides as a connecting flight. The kind with only one seat on either side of the aisle and where every errant air current sends you bouncing.
It definitely felt like you were taking your life into your hands to fly in that plane, so I would joke with my sister, someone with whom I had watched a decent amount of General Hospital, a daytime soap opera, that we always needed to get in an argument before I would fly. My rationale stemming from the trope in soap operas of killing characters off- frequently in plane crashes- the moment they achieve the dreaded emotional space of being completely happy. Being inside that narrative, I could thwart the danger of the flight by having an unresolved argument with my sister. “They” would never kill off a person with that still hanging over their heads.
I didn’t actually believe that- but my sister and I would engage in funny arguments before I flew. Just to be safe. It is the allure of being on the inside of the plot of your own life story. It creates a false sense of control. And can provide meaning to the arc of time. But it ignores the reality that narratives- all stories- are creations of someone else’s imagination. No matter how “truthful,” the telling of a story is designed by the storyteller to take you to a particular place. And when we confuse life with narratives, we can also find ourselves lost in someone else’s intentions.
Narratives are amazing creations. They can provide stories of justice, redemption, insight and laughter. They can also twist, distort and erase. The key is to listen and assess how much you trust the storyteller before you let yourself fall too far into them, for they are seriously powerful, and should not be taken lightly.
As I was writing this I was listening to Sam Sanders interview Spike Lee on the radio program, Fresh Air. Mr. Lee was talking about how many people seemed to have died lately, and Sanders asked him if this made him think about his own death. I loved his answer. He stalled a moment, and at Sanders asking again, said, “I don’t want to speak my mortality into existence.” And he changed the subject. This is a man with a healthy respect for the power of narrative.