How we are held together by stories
I’m currently on a long writing retreat, four weeks in Budapest reached by trains from Warwickshire to London (after a car journey from Wales), from London to Paris, from Paris to Munich, via Stuttgart and from Munich to Budapest. Slow travel over four days gives the emotions time to catch up with the body and provides a lot of time to think into the writing period.
The story of the journey was a difficult one. I cracked a rib on the train to London, which made both sleep and moving with a suitcase difficult. The train from Paris Gare de l’Est left 40 minutes late after engine problems, but as the connection after that train was already cancelled this didn’t seem like such a problem.
It became more stressful when the conductor announced that an incident with animals on the line meant we would now be 80 minutes behind schedule so might miss the connection after our already cancelled one. But the train never made it to Stuttgart anyway — instead it was terminated at Karlsruhe and a whole train of people was piled onto a much smaller, older, already well-occupied train. This train didn’t leave the station but was delayed to allow another late-running train to disgorge onto it.
When every aisle was full of standing, tired people the conductor announced that we could not leave until some people got off and others moved. The reason was that a large group of French teenagers who had reserved seats had been left standing and their leader was not going to tolerate this, even though no one else had their reservations. Twenty minutes later the guy got his way, old couples stood in the spaces between carriages while all the teens were seated, and several people who’d already been displaced and were running hours late were forced to get off the train and wait longer.
In the scale of things, such events are minor annoyances, but they add to the sense that life is fragile and unpredictable and invite us to muse on wider issues of how we relate to each other or make connections in a world full of stress and cracks.
The search for meaning is subversive. It gets in the way of making pots of money or allowing ourselves to we told who we are or what to think. It makes us determined to see life as more than scrabbling in the dust to survive, but it’s not always easy. As Emily Dickinson (may have) said:
Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.
But where do we find the hope?
There’s a lot of talk about humility that is either a way to keep others in their place or to gloss over what we can’t face in ourselves. But humility is neither about destructive self denigration nor about adopting a mask to get approval.
Humility is about honesty and the kind of self-acceptance that allows us not to rest in complacency. Humility is about realising that in an overwhelming and complex world we need to hold our ideas about reality and about who we are tentatively. This is how Thomas Merton puts it:
The one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems [is] that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggression and hypocrisy.
When we accept our limitations, but throw in our lot with attempting to do what is decent, what is most likely to be valuable, what works to write a different story, this is both humility and hope.
When we are able to let go of the notion that we can or should be perfect then we are less judgmental of others. When we can look at ourselves honestly and know that we get things wrong, but still we want to do what we can with what Mary Oliver calls our ‘one wild and precious life’, then we tend to be kinder to both ourselves and others.
Mercy isn’t a concept of fluffy sentimentality. When we feel ourselves to be in a mess or when look at our efforts as writers or people and hear an inner voice that is harsh and full of condemnation, it’s much easier to self-destruct either by being unforgiving of ourselves or by (deliberately or unconsciously) winding others up to the point that we’ll provoke the anger and fury we feel we deserve.
By the same token, looking with forgiveness (for the human frailty whilst not condoning the damage done) on those who seem most to spread hatred is not simplistic or easy.
Mercy doesn’t buy into excuses or shrug off atrocity with a ‘never mind, it’s all forgotten’, but it does allow a humane kindness of such depth that it creates a breathing space into which hope can step and change begin to occur.
Humility, ironically, makes us more secure in our journeys to who we want to become. When we are not shoring up ego every second of the day, when we don’t have to look perfect, and when we accept we might be wrong, we’re not so defensive.
Mercy makes us more expansive people. When we know we need kindness ourselves and have our own inner critics to contend with, we have more empathy.
When we aspire to these values , no matter how many times we have to begin again, we also become more generous.
Generosity is not self-sacrifice, it’s not being everyone’s doormat or having no ability to say ‘no’. But neither is it about being repaid.
The Masai have a system called ‘osotua’. It’s a network of support passed on down generations that enables those in great need to ask for help and know they will be helped. It’s not done on cost-benefit analysis and not scores of who has asked for how much or how often are kept. But it turns out that it does help the whole cultural group to thrive outside of major disasters that wipe out everyone’s livelihood.
There’s a lot of ugliness in the world.
- The political scene is invariably rotten.
- The seas are awash with plastics choking life.
- In the poorest countries of the world, especially in the 26 from that category that lie within Africa, the numbers of desperately poor continue to rise while income gaps and homelessness blight richer countries.
- Slavery in so many forms thrives across the globe.
And this hardly begins the list …
- a young woman with metastatic breast cancer lives her one wild beautiful life with grace
- a lone walker stands on the ege of Finisterre looking out at the most beautiful sunrise
- a child takes his first step
- one friend listens to another’s grief
The beauty doesn’t make the ugliness and the suffering any less; it neither trivialises nor obliterates it, but the beauty is there nonetheless, on its own terms and with its own weight.
Barry Lopez puts it like this:
All that is holding us together [is] stories and compassion.
Compassion is a wonderful concept. There’s a verse in the Book of Jeremiah when everything looks bleak and God says of ‘Ephraim’ ‘I’ll surely have great compassion on him’. (Jeremiah 31:3)
Compassion is not condescending pity. The root of the word for compassion used here is ‘womb’: a better translation would be: ‘My womb moves for you.’ (I know, how many male deities do you know with a womb? And some translations go to great lengths to avoid the word ‘womb’ — it becomes ‘iner being’, ‘heart’, ‘deep yearning’ and even ‘bowels’.But that’s another article!)
Compassion is gut-wrenching fellow-feeling. It’s the realisation that we are of the same stuff and absolutely connected. We need to practice humility, mercy and generosity to have anything approaching compassion. We need to be people who search out and see the beauty no matter what else in order to practice compassion.
And when we work on being such people, or make incremental steps towards being people of compassion, then the stories of who we are and the stories we tell about each other, about reality, about the future, all change.
We live in narrative. The stories we inhabit, breathe in daily and live in, about the planet, about how we connect to one another, about who we are, matter. What stories do you tell yourself about yourself? What stories do you allow others to tell about you, or believe? What are the stories which will form the future?
As writers, we have the chance, however small, to push back against an increasingly impoverished, degraded or misleading storyscape.
As writers we have the opportunity to make new connections between our subjective stories and a mythology that supports hope so that the good will reveal itself.
As the Jungian writer, D Stephenson Bond says:
Personal myth begins precisely in that moment you say, this is vital to me.
We live in myth when our lives have meaning and intention; when our life is an unfolding story. And meaning always requires an act of imagination.
As writers we have a tiny, yet vital part to play in making narrative meaning. It’s a task that requires us to become transparent to the stories we want and need to tell, that asks us to dive deep into our own sense of meaning because, to repeat Barry Lopez:
All that is holding us together [is] stories and compassion.
in the still small point
Like many writers, T S Eliot talked about how we find meaning. For Eliot is was found:
in the still small point of the turning world
Hope and meaning turn up in the most unlikely places. As A Jane Kenyon poem puts it:
I am the food on the prisoner’s plate …
the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden …
the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge
But sometimes we need a little patch of quiet to find our way, to take the time to become the story we want to be in order to write.
Meditating, walking alone, silence or journaling can give us the breathing space to shift perspective and go on taking the next step and the next.
If we are going to be myth-makers; if we are going to be people of humility, mercy and generosity; if we are going to see the beauty against the odds; and if we are going to be amongst those playing a small part in holding the world together with story and compassion, then we need to have inner reserves. We need to find our own still small points so that we can tell a different story.
Becoming a Different Story journaling
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. If you are looking to enrich your writing practice and widen its scope, no matter how experienced you are as a writer, join me for a free live online workshop and leave with some powerful tools to inspire your writing and your life. The workshop will take place on November 10 at 12 noon EDT (4 p.m. London; 5 p.m. Budapest & Paris)and you can register for the workshop in advance @ https://zoom.us/meeting/register/22bd369114ebd5cbcde7dc3c8da9331e