We Are All Unreliable Narrators
The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.
Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.
I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.
This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.
Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.
Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.
There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.
The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”
One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.
Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive. When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.
One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).
There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.
The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.
When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.
I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within – that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.
Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:
Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.
Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott – The communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.