Story Arcs

Karen and I managed to arrange a much-needed change of scenery over the holiday weekend and escaped to the beach. Aside from being completely relaxed and slightly sunburned, another, and more interesting, outcome of this trip was an observation of memory.

What made the trip interesting was that, while we were joining other people for the weekend, the destination was where Karen and I honeymooned. We hadn’t been back since, and the emotional associations that the house, the beach, and the town carried for me took me a bit by surprise…above and beyond what I thought I would experience there.

Memories, I think, are among the most precious gifts given to us, because they remind us of our back story. Interestingly, Karen and I were discussing the value of story in theology and psychology and (oddly) popular music while driving down. What we experienced was a review of the beginnings of our own story.

The friends with whom we were visiting have a daughter. Karen was very close with this girl during her early childhood. However, since grad school and our being married, we live several hours away, and Karen hasn’t been a significant part of this girl’s life in about 5 years. The girl didn’t really remember Karen. I think that’s tragic…to not remember someone influential in your story, a human life that has crossed yours…to not have a referent for where you learned or experienced something that that person may have taught you…that’s something that I can’t imagine. I think it must be similar to what sufferers of certain diseases affecting the memory must experience, although, ironically, they likely don’t know that they’re experiencing it.

I watched Karen re-solidify that relationship over the weekend, and it was fascinating to observe. In the end, while I won’t say they were where they had left off years ago, I certainly think they were on their way. As their story moved forward, they had began to piece together missing links in the preceding chapters, thus solidifying their current lives that much more.

Buechner asserts that all theology is narrative; that is, seen through the lens of one’s life experiences and encounters with God. Similarly, I think that psychology is narrative, also, as it deals with the holistic person. One is not defined by one’s symptoms or pathology alone…those are just pieces of a larger puzzle. One is defined just as much by the lives that touch theirs, by their experiences, by their travels, by their culture…in short, by their story.

I’m glad that Karen renewed her relationship with our friends’ daughter. I’m glad that we had a chance to spend some small time with our friends, because they, and that place, are a huge part of our story, as it interweaves with theirs. To lose any part of that story, any small component, would be to make us less. What I’ve walked away from the weekend with is a renewed sense of importance of how tragic it is to lose any small piece of our story to forgetfulness or neglect.

And, ironically, I forgot to take any pictures.

Humor is Being Mis-Labeled

The fact that I hold a serious dislike for labels is no secret. For the most part, I go to great efforts to avoid them. One way in which I specifically try to avoid them is by refusing to place decals and bumper stickers on my car, partly because I think it is indicative of a struggle to realize one’s identity (which I think I’m relatively comfortable with…well, I think), and partly because I think it is just tacky. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I must also admit that I fall momentarily short here. I have a customized license plate, because a percentage of the proceeds went to benefit Virginia’s arts programs. I also have an Apple decal on my back glass (somehow, labeling myself as a Mac user isn’t problematic…hmmm, perhaps it should be). Otherwise, I avoid these things passionately.

Karen and I were having a conversation about observations recently. You tend to notice things about people you see often but don’t necessarily know, such as the style of clothing that they wear, or the types of vehicles they drive. I made such an observation about our new neighbor, and Karen pointed out that these sorts of observations couldn’t lead to an conclusive picture as to someone’s personality. I agree totally, but at the same time, it is one of the first steps of observation in forming a clinical picture of someone, and it is a habit which tends to spill over from my professional life to my personal. Returning to the bumper sticker/decal discussion, I was behind a large pickup truck in traffic a week or so ago. Among the labels adorning the back glass of the truck were a sticker for rugby, a U.S. Marine Corps license plate, and one that proclaimed “Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body.” I feel I could form a relatively accurate summary as to primary personality characteristics of that driver.

Sometimes, though, I encounter a series contradictory messages that, at best, strike me as ironic, and at worst leave me baffled. For example, a truck parked a few buildings over from us is covered in bumper stickers. One urges its readers to “Raise Clams, Not Subdivisions.” A worthy sentiment, but ironic considering it is parked in an apartment complex.

Today, however, I was behind a truck in traffic again that moved me surpassed irony and left me in complete confusion. The decals on the back of this particular truck included “Vegetarian,” a peace sign, and (again) the U.S. Marine Corps. Perhaps there is an identity crisis at work? Perhaps a used vehicle that was already adorned, and then added to by its owner?

Or perhaps someone with an excellent sense of humor that enjoys messing with people like me. If so, it was without a doubt the most humorous joke I’ve read all day.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

I listened to a fascinating story this morning about a woman who made her way through life by lying. The people who had been victimized by her lying spoke of their difficulty trusting again…something I can relate to easily enough, as I don’t readily trust people at all. I felt incredibly sorry for this person…from a clinical perspective I’m diagnosing her while from a spiritual perspective I’m grieving for her quality of life. The story, as always, hooked me, drawing me into their world as any good story will. The story piqued my interest in the research behind it. 

The host of the program interviewed a researcher who has made an interesting discovery in the brains of so-called “pathological liars.” Brain scans of the prefrontal cortex, the area that is linked to the appropriateness of social interactions, among other things, reveal interesting discoveries. For example, there are a number of interconnections in the prefrontal cortex, and there seem to be fewer of these in incarcerated individuals, suicide victims, etc. I’ve seen real-world examples of these: I once had a friend who had been involved in an accident that damaged the tissue in this area of the brain. This person could verbalize some extremely blunt things  in conversation: think House in the real world.
The research referenced this morning, though, points out the presence of some white matter, also, and this white matter is (apparently) increasingly present in those who lie easily and frequently. The theory here is that perhaps the more white matter there is, the easier it is for one to dig up a lie and tell the story. 
This leads me to wonder, then, where do story-tellers fall in this area? Not necessarily story-tellers like the reporter in the beginning of this morning’s piece, but fiction writers, for example. Do we have more white matter? What about actors? Have we simply located a socially acceptable medium of expression for our “story-telling” tendencies? 
A second researcher featured at the end of this program focused on self-deception: the ability to readily lie to ourselves. Her conclusion was the those of us who are able to self-deceive easily tend to be happier and more successful. While certainly I recognize the ability of man to self-deceive at a frightening capacity, I wonder if the artist wouldn’t prove an exception to her theory? By her definition, the self-deceiver (or one with the ability to easily lie) sees life more positively, and that those who are more honest about life are more depressed, more pragmatic, seeing life “as is.” 
So, if (and this is a big “if” backed up by only my musings and no concrete research of which I am aware), the artistic story-teller has the ability to formulate these fictions so readily, why is it that the artist is the one who paints the human condition in all of its bleakness as well as its joy? If the artist is, in some sense, the prophet of our day, then doesn’t the happiness-caused-by-self-deception theory break down? 
Strange perceptual shifts tend to happen, after all, when one is exposed to the truth.