In Marshall Gregory’s book, Shaped By Stories: The ethical power of narratives, his premise is that we live lives saturated with stories, many of which we fail to recognize as stories at all. Yet, the effect of those stories is powerful and cumulative, having an influence on the kind of people we turn out to be. I spend most of my days with stories one way or another, mostly of the straightforward book-ish variety. So I thought I would look out for the more hidden stories, and see whether I could tease out what they meant – what purpose they had, what they challenged and what they supported.
- Late at night when I’m tired and want to go to bed, that’s when my son comes alive and sparky. Mostly this is because he has never quite grown out of the desire to postpone going to sleep, and in particular to put off cleaning his teeth, which he detests. The other night I was already cleaning mine when he came up to bed. When he saw me, he yelped, ran away and then returned moments later, having paid a visit to his shelf of treasures. In his hand he held a miniature, ten-inch long sabre. ‘I’ve come to defend you from the troublesome beastie that’s attacking you!’ he declared. I replied, ‘Your loyalty is appreciated even if misguided.’ And he had a lovely time discovering that a swift upper cut with his mini-sword could send a toothbrush hurtling out of the jug in a series of somersaults, to land with satisfactory clunk in the bath. In return I told him about the time when, still a baby, he hurled a seashell into his grandparent’s bath and managed to puncture it. So that the next time I was in it, water began trickling down the dining room walls. He was torn between amusement, disbelief and some disquiet that the bath had had to be replaced. Surely a puncture repair kit would have sufficed? Surely the hole could have been plugged? In this way we had a surreptitious conversation by subtext. He protested the need to clean his teeth, I advised him to take responsibility for his actions, and he toyed with the idea of having an impact on the world, finding it both attractive and alarming. And we did this without ever once articulating the issues.
- On the radio as we were getting up this morning, a commentator was discussing Barack Obama and the recent fall in his popularity rating. He was suggesting that it was only ever a matter of time before authority figures disappoint us because of our tendency to put so much faith in them. He said Obama had had heavier expectations placed on his shoulders than any politician in living memory, and that the current criticism was more about those expectations than about the reality of the political situation. Expectations are intriguing, I think. They are pre-recorded stories, fantasies that we stubbornly believe ought to be real, narratives whose outcomes we have already decided in advance. We then impose them on reality, demanding that reality conform to our pre-decided plotline. The higher the expectations we place on people, the more inevitable we make it that they will disappoint us. And no matter that we know in some part of us that expectations have no real correlation to the future, we still resent others if they don’t live up to them. The real story is the story of the expectations themselves – they contain much that is precious to our hopes and dreams, and provide a map to our emotional investments.
- At lunchtime I was reading the Times Higher Educational Supplement online, something I rarely do because the comments are so painful. It was a story about funding for PhDs, and the suggestion coming from a lobbying group that government money should be concentrated in the most research-intensive universities (the rich get richer, the poor get poorer vs. the benefits of centralising resources, in other words). It was mainly a story about the outrage that this proposal had incited, and the comments were saturated with cynicism, despair, hostility and a kind of weary superiority. All these commenters were attached to universities and ought to have been trained to think, to untangle arguments, and to take a step back, to consider what response the story was designed to provoke. But when self-interest is at stake, it’s evident that analysis goes out the window, to be replaced by prejudice and conspiracy theories. I heard different stories behind those comments – stories of people who had strived to gain their status and didn’t want it damaged, people who had passions they longed to follow, even though they were not fashionable, lots of chips on shoulders, from previous rejections, much fear about the implications of ‘a self-proclaimed elite’. Who is allowed knowledge, authority, money to pursue their ideas? Much is at stake, but most of it was expressed through profound emotional responses, dressed up as analytic responses. Beyond all of this, I felt I could see a different issue: the disturbing, underlying story that intellectual research is no longer valued in our culture, and is being steadily undermined and reduced by the government. I felt the commenters should have united to address this problem, rather than allowing the cunning article with its provocative message to set them against each other.
- Yesterday afternoon I was talking to a student who is recovering from post-viral fatigue. It sounded like a terrible illness; his heart (and he was a very fit young man who ran marathons) slowed to a third of its rate, giving him awful symptoms of collapse. The after effects had been tenacious. He spoke about the difficulty of getting to sleep at night, suddenly finding himself lurching awake, terrified of dying, every time he reached the point of losing consciousness. It could take him up to three hours to fall asleep. In the course of chatting about this, he recalled the first time he fell seriously and unexpectedly ill, ending up in the accident and emergency ward of a hospital in Harlow. It sounded horrific. He was in a ward overnight with three other men, staffed by nurses who were profoundly indifferent to their suffering. One man died in the middle of the night. The elderly man beside him soiled himself three times, ignored by the nurses and then scolded by them when they found him unclean. My student was attached to a heart monitor that set off an alarm every time his heart rate fell below 45 beats per minute. Of course it was doing this all the time, but no nurses came to check on him, and he wondered how low it would have to fall before anyone became concerned. Instead he struggled to keep himself awake and hyped up, to raise his heartbeat and stop triggering the machine.
And as he told me this, so the synapses fired in his brain and with a look of astonishment in his eyes he said to me, ‘That’s it. Do you think that could be it? The source of the trauma?’ Having described his difficulty falling asleep and then described the horrors of the A & E ward, he could see the analogies between them. We spoke more about the situation in the hospital, about how terrified and vulnerable he must have felt, in a place where he ought to have been assured care and security. How he had prevented himself from relaxing in any way, doing his best to control what was out of control. I felt almost privileged to be there with him while he dug this underlying story out and got in touch with its buried emotions. He sent me an email later – he felt so much better, understanding the cause of his persistent anxiety. And we could never have done it without the telling of stories, without their ability to give shape and form to the places where confusion and fear languish, unexplored and untamed.
This was the result from only a couple of days of paying attention. I’m interested to see where this book goes next. Now we have the stories – what will we be invited to think about them?