The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Will it be a blip, or is it the end of the world, or is it something in between? It’s a question people have asked themselves through all kinds of crises, trying to fathom the way their own stories will turn out. And it’s why I’ve been finding books about World Wars I and II so comforting these past weeks.*

As present-day readers, it is reassuring to find ourselves in the middle of a story in which the characters don’t know the ending but we, in general terms at least, do. We know what kind of story these wartime books are, how their crises will ultimately turn out in broad terms, even if we don’t know the fates of each character, and that balance helps us to learn how to live in our own uncertain, still undetermined story.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson is a wartime journal written during the London Blitz, where in a letter, Hodgson notes, “I am still alive at this particular date, but whether I shall be when you receive it is another matter. However, everyone in London is in the same state of questioned animation” (September 23, 1940). That sensation of questioned animation — or suspended animation — is one that dogs our steps these days.

In World War I Canada, plucky teenager Rilla Blythe grapples for a script, and “after the first shock, reacted to the romance of it all, in spite of her heartache.” She is able, at least temporarily, to situate herself in a familiar narrative — the brave, heartbroken woman left behind at the front, and while this story will not completely sustain her through the coming years of war, it gives her a template to follow, expectations to attain. Similarly, Susan, an elderly maiden housekeeper of the Blythe family, never given to the temptation of romance, still determines to be, as she says, a “heroine”:

“I am not […] going to lament or whine or question the wisdom of the Almighty any more as I have been doing lately. Whining and shirking and blaming Providence do not get us anywhere. We have just got to grapple with whatever we have to do whether it is weeding the onion patch, or running the Government.”

Still, it’s hard to be patient in the middle of the story, waiting for it to unfurl. After my miscarriage earlier this year, I talked to several friends about their past miscarriages. There were women who immediately conceived after their loss and had to grapple with all the fear as they carried their next baby to term; women who conceived soon after and found solace knowing that this baby wouldn’t exist but for that previous loss — only to lose again; women who lost and did not conceive again. Each woman had spent so much time trying to fit her experiences into a narrative that made sense — and I assure you, in the weeks after my loss, none of the stories I told myself about my miscarriage ended with “followed almost immediately by a worldwide pandemic.”

So what is the point of all this work we do, trying to make up stories about events still in progress, trying to predict the future with almost no evidence? All I know is that we are a story people. It’s almost impossible to rest in uncertainty.

I keep thinking about that movie Stranger Than Fiction, where a pretty boring guy played (delightfully!) by Will Farrell, suddenly begins hearing his life narrated by a mysterious literary voice and sets out to try to figure out the kind of story he’s living. On his quest, he encounters a professor of English played by Dustin Hoffman, and then a montage follows in which he keeps track of the evidence in favor of his life being either a tragedy or a comedy.

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The scripts we’ve thought we were following have all been thrown out by this pandemic, or else veered in a direction no editor could have predicted. So we are left grappling with the evidence for and against, making marks in the “tragedy” and “comedy” columns with each day’s events: a new outbreak near us, another person we know distantly infected; the kindness of neighbors we never knew, our toddler’s delightful antics, observed without rush during the slowness of quarantine. It’s why every columnist, every guy with an Internet connection, is throwing out predictions on what the next weeks, months, years might hold.

I don’t have any advice or predictions of my own to offer here. All I know is that we aren’t in this alone, and that we certainly aren’t the first people in history to feel this way. So we don’t know what our stories hold for us. (We never really did.) We don’t have a handy script to follow, what our parents or big sister or mentor did, and we feel unmoored from the past and all that went before. (We always needed to find our own way.) There are no shortcuts to the kind of lives we wanted from where we find ourselves now. (Life was always going to require patience, more patience than we thought we could muster.) As T.S. Eliot wrote in his Blitz-era poem “Little Gidding“:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”

*(I’m not the only one — Haley Stewart has a beautiful reflection on Rilla of Ingleside over at Public Discourse.)

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