In the book about plot I’m reading (20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias), Mr. Tobias talks about how plot and structure in fiction differ from real life. In real life, he says, there are not the same links of causation. Life is chaotic and sometimes (even often), things occur because of chance and wild coincidence (whereas in fiction, it’s really hard to get away with coincidence and generally denotes sloppy plotting). Some loose ends never get wrapped up in real life, we never know the true “ending”, and much of what happens seems to be without meaning and never gets explained. The Absurdists try to reflect this random reality in their literature: Camus and Kafka are two well-known writers who do this well. (And incidentally, you know who else identifies as an Absurdist? Joss Whedon. An explanation for Puppet Angel, perhaps.)
Theodora Goss, who has a beautiful blog, has a slightly different view: “Happiness is the ability to create satisfying stories about reality. To find the stories that fulfill you, that allow you to achieve what you desire. That fill you with joy. Because reality is, to a certain extent, our perception of it. Achieving what you desire may also involve altering reality itself, changing your circumstance.”
I’m inclined to agree with her. The power of storytelling is making order from chaos and meaning from seemingly unrelated events. But stories don’t merely reside in our books and entertainments. We are constantly telling ourselves our own stories, and in so doing, we are cementing certain events into memory and into part of who we are. By doing this, we construct a reality that no longer appears quite so random and out of control.
We are in the continuous process of creating ourselves. “I’m the person who did xyz. I’m the person to whom this happened. I’m the person who spends my time in this way. This is what is important to me.” That’s why I’m always harping about the importance of priorities. Because priorities are a way of expressing deep truths about ourselves and making our most important desires into reality.
Humans as a species are fascinated by the quest for meaning. This desire for meaning is reflected in many aspects of our culture: in our art, our religions, the Enlightenment and our fervor for science, and our ease of slipping into diametric thinking (black and white, good and evil). We spend our lives trying to make sense of our childhoods, the people around us, and the huge life-altering events that intrude into our sense of order (war, natural disaster, illness and death, wide-scale oppression and resistance). We ask, why are things the way they are? How does the universe work? In what direction is human civilization heading? Or, more personally, why doesn’t So-and-so like me? What is my purpose in life? What will make me happy?
We have to be very careful with the stories we tell ourselves, the movies in our minds. (You can thank Miss Saigon for that pretty turn of phrase.) If we tell ourselves negative stories or harshly self-critical stories, these stories will eventually manifest themselves, often in self-limiting behaviors and self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, we tell ourselves that we’re geniuses who can do no wrong, we can become out of touch with the humanity around us and struggle to find compassion for others.
On their own, our lives do not fit together neatly into a perfect puzzle of reality. We create the frame of reference from which we can understand ourselves and the world around us. We make our own explanations and our own meaning. What this means, I believe, is that ultimately we choose the slant of our lives until we die. Are we empowered? Can we make change? Or are we victims or characters in a tragedy, or are we taking an active role in life? Can we find the good in our situation and encourage it to grow? Or is everything about life difficult and glaring and out to get us?
In the movie Holiday, the old screenwriter Arthur tells his friend Iris that she should be “the leading lady” of her own life, but for some reason she is behaving “like the best friend.” We each have that choice in the stories we tell ourselves. Are we the hero of our tale, or are we relegating ourselves to a supporting role?
Be the hero. Be the protagonist. Be the person who acts instead of the person who is acted upon. We are all leading ladies and men. And we each get the privilege of creating the stories of our lives.