Tell Me a Story and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

This week, This American Life featured an archived piece about parents and their adult children.  Of special interest to me was the assertion that some of the friction between people and their adult children stems from each having a different narrative about how the growing up years went.  Children generally have a darker view than do their parents, and tend to have a dimmer recollection of how well their parents did.

The same events, remembered differently, because we need to re-shape our stories to suit our ends.  We need to live with ourselves– we need to sleep!  We need to live with these stories.

The adult child struggles with a bad decision here, a lazy choice there, and it’s easier to evoke the flawed way we grew up as the cause.  The parent, ever aware that more could have been done, better choices could have been made, less selfish behavior employed, reframes the parenting as having been slightly better than it was, the good old days burnished a bit more golden.

We are nothing but a collection of our stories. Stuff happens to us, people are placed in our lives, we are thrust into circumstances not of our choosing (the prince consort and I began our parenting lives with the guiding light of a New Yorker cartoon, that of the harried New York couple bringing the baby home to a bare apartment for the first time and the baby deadpans, “oh great, humble beginnings.”).  How we react to our environment and its dynamics is what becomes the story.  Was the lighting dim and romantic or dark and sinister?  The tone of a single event is shaped over time to fit our characterization of our place in life.

I tend to self-deprecate– my narrative is generally that of the buffoon.  I have confidence that I will literally die of having slipped on a banana peel.  When asked to tell a story that defines me, it is likely to be something like the time I ran like the devil to catch a commuter flight at LaGuardia and made it on to the tiny plane just in time to take the last seat– which was covered in the last passenger’s vomit.  My stories are like that– hapless, failing.  This is important to my identity as the clown– not someone who is terribly funny, but whose efforts in life generally end up laughable.

My one sister can tell darling stories about me as a child– and as a teenager– things I don’t remember, but which characterize me as really lovable, bright, sweet.  What I remember, especially of myself as a teenager, is that I was moody, depressive, negative, fearful.  Another sister remembers our growing up as having been benign and wholesome, who recalls my father as having been hearty and good-natured.  There are seven other of us who say the same man was scary, ill-tempered, our house’s mood that of walking on eggshells.

We are stories, the stories we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.  No iteration of the same event is the truth, but all are true in some way, and make us who we are: hero, victim, peacemaker, witness, or clown.

(Edit: It’s time those of us over 30 cut our parents a break.  They did the best they could for the most part.  They’re remembering as they need to.  We have one version: they have another– getting them to admit it happened exactly as we say serves neither party.  Time to let it go, and give them the space and forgiveness we’ll one day ask of our kids.)