Belonging to the Narrative


As a rule, I am pretty sensitive to attributing personal traits to impersonal objects.  You can tell, I am sure, that I am going to suspend that today and you are right, but let me illustrate it first.  It is a commonplace of literary study to talk of an “interaction” between the reader and the text.  I’ve never liked that.  I am not affecting the text in the slightest.  It is “affecting” me, but it is not “acting on” me because it is not acting.  I have never liked to hear people say they have been “blessed” unless they believe that someone has blessed them—ordinarily some notion of God is the presupposition is such a statement.  If they believe that God has blessed them, I am fine with that, too.

But today, I want to talk about “belonging to a narrative.”  I am going to grant myself that latitude because I want to contrast it to “constructing a narrative.”  Everyone who has raised children knows the difference.  There is a family project and you need a story about why it is important to do this or why right now or why just this way.  You and your wife huddle up in advance—in my experience, not very much in advance—and concoct a story.  The children “accept” the story.  They may not” believe” it because it may be entirely fanciful and they know that it is the density and the coherence of the symbol system that matters, not the empirically verifiable facts.[1]  You and your wife don’t believe it at all because you made it up.

narrativeThe children belong to the narrative.  The story about how Uncle Brian sprouted wings and got to the lake before us is affected by all the other things you know that they don’t know.  Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth; Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants; William the Conqueror was known by many as William the Bastard before his military successes of 1066 CE.  Oh, and Uncle Brian can fly when he feels the need.  People who know things you don’t about Hannibal and William might know things you don’t about Uncle Brian.

These children accept the constraints of the stories you give them.  Some are true in the historical sense; some are “true”—well-constructed—in the narrative sense.  The children live within these narratives and in that sense, “belong to them.”  You and your wife do not.  You built the narrative for a certain occasion, using the conventions you and the children have settled on, and you will change any part of it that doesn’t work.  Actually, Uncle Brian can fly only on weekends.  The energy he needs to activate the wings is drained off by the demands of his job during the weekdays.  That’s why he couldn’t come today.

So there are narratives that belong to you and narratives you belong to.   Take this one, fornarrative 3 instance.  Do you think this narrative belongs to him or do you think he belongs to it?

Yesterday, I watched a really wonderful TED talk. [2] My brother, Karl, passed it along with his recommendation and we like a lot of the same kinds of things so I watched it.  It was wonderful.  Amanda Bennett’s talk is called “We need a heroic narrative for death.”  She was talking about the experience she and her husband had of planning the actions they would take during the time he was dying of cancer.

As she looks back on that time, she thinks that she and her husband chose a much more aggressive and more expensive medical strategy than they should have.  Why did they choose this strategy?  It was the strategy that fit the narrative they were living in.  They wanted to do this right; this, their last battle together.  They wanted to defeat death in a heroic struggle or to succumb in a heroic struggle.  They were committed, to say it another way, to heroism in the face of this trial and all-out war against this disease is the way the heroic narrative led them.

Being committed to the heroic narrative, they committed themselves to the decisions and actions that narrative required of them.  (You see now why I needed to introduce this by making “the narrative” capable of taking action.)  We could have done it differently, says Mrs. Bennett.  We would have done it differently if we had had another heroic narrative at our disposal.

narrative 2I think Amanda Bennett knows more than most of us about “living within the narrative.”  She and her husband lived within the narrative to which they belonged.[3]  She also wants a better narrative.  She is committed to heroic narrative, but she is open to another kind of heroism.  She is not satisfied, as she looks back on it, with “denying death.”  It was a doomed narrative, win or lose, but she doesn’t have another one.

The TED talk gets as far as her understanding that she needs another one and there are few lines of a poem that suggest a direction she and her husband might have taken and that she, herself, might take.  It isn’t a poem I know and even if it were, I wouldn’t know how to build a narrative from it.  But can you really live within a narrative you know you have created yourself?  I don’t see how.

Remember how “Uncle Brian sprouted wings and got to the lake before us?”  That really worked for the kids.  It worked because it was a whole narrative framework when they first encountered it.  They belonged to it, even if they were just believing it for fun.  Had they said, “No, not wings.  Let’s make it…a virtual rocket…and he downloads it and rides it to the lake…um…and then sends it back to the Cloud.  Yeah…back to the Cloud.”  You really have to like those kids.  I do.  But they do not belong to this new narrative.  It belongs to them.  They made it take shape.  They changed it to meet their needs.  And because they did that, there is one need it will not meet—they cannot belong to it.

I think that is what will happen to Amanda Bennett.  I think she will devise a new heroic narrative.  She will call it a better narrative and it might be better.  But the bitter paradox is that when you make ‘em the way you like ‘em, they won’t carry you anywhere you want to go.

What is better?  For society, I think it would be better if parents and teachers began assembling stories around a gentle and generous leave-taking.  If those stories, the ones the parents told and the ones the teachers read to them, were the narrative into which the children came when they first began to wonder about death, it would be the narrative they belonged to.  Maybe Amanda Bennett’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

I don’t think that would do it for me.  I do like the gentle leave-taking Mrs. Bennett is talking about, but that seems like a tactical response and I would feel that I was still short a strategy.  It would be, to revert to the narrative metaphor, instructions on how the narrative should be read—“tell it gently and don’t rush”—rather than what the narrative is.  I have always been drawn to St. Paul’s reflection in 2 Timothy 4: “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

If you know that passage, you know that “I have fought the good fight” precedes it.  Paul relied on all kinds of athletic images.  The Greeks loved “their games” and Paul may have been a three-sport man himself.  I am not a fighter, so although I resonate to “fighting the good fight” in the life of Paul, it doesn’t mean much in the life of Dale.  I am, on the other hand, a runner and a teacher and I have known for many years that the English word curriculum comes from the verb currere, “to run.”  A curriculum is, in fact, the course that is set out for the race to take, so when I say that I have finished the race, I have a marathon course in the back of my mind.

For me “finishing the race” and “keeping the faith” are pretty much the same thing.  It’s like being sent to the store for a dozen eggs.  The goal is to get back home again AND to bring the eggs with you.  That is, after all, why you went to the store.

I didn’t choose that narrative from all the options on the buffet table.  It would belong to me if I did that.  I didn’t make it up either, because it would belong to me if I did that.  This is the one I belong to.  I have lived within it all my life and I am grateful that it has chosen me.


[1] I phrased it that way because I think those are the elements that actually matter in effective narratives, not because those are the words the children would have used to explain it to themselves.

[2] TED is “technology, entertainment, design” and can be found at  Some of the best and most succinct explanations of new ideas I have ever heard, I have heard there.

[3] You might feel the itch to change that to “in which they belonged” (I did), but notice that the “in” phrasing takes agency away from the narrative and you can see why I wouldn’t want to do that.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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