True Story: Is This Real Life?

An unusual event happened a couple of weeks ago. I watched two movies in one night. Although I’m not much of a movie buff I do have a clearly demarcated “genre” of movies that are likely to get my two thumbs up–I love comedies like Matilda. Liar Liar. And dark dramas like Magnolia. The Squid and the Whale. As it turned out, Goats fell right in line with my favorite sort. Then She Found Me isn’t the best movie ever, but I conceded to watch it for the second time in my life because it contains one of my favorite scenes of all time…

If you can’t already identify some running themes, these movies are the kind that address relationships, especially family relationships, and highlight the drama of building trust, enduring let down, and struggling with abandonment. One thematic angle often reveals the selfishness of childish parents that puts pressure on the children as they grow up. The wounds these children incur from primary relationships during their formative years provide the hook of vulnerability cum hardness that evidences itself even if the children are five or fifty-year-old grown adults.

In any case, they are often forced to grow up too soon from having to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the decisions made by those around them and out of the need to take care of themselves when no one else can or will.

For this reason, and because I think it is sometimes the case that maturity comes with experience, I can’t help but feel a bit of sadness for the more precocious type of child-characters.

While the wisdom, resilience, and confidence that some of these characters embody can be judged as character strengths, the subtle thread of hardness (which sometimes, I think, can be misidentified as strength) that held it all together — the story, them –can also be seen to affect their other relationships, present and future, in rather predictable ways.

The effects of being a child-who-had-to-grow-up can still be identified through  interactions with friends, romantic partners, and their own children such that one begins to appreciate how the “story” continues and extends beyond the written plot of the movie.

Look at us 1st grade kids. So young. So fresh. So much to learn.

However, if the movie is any good, it is typical for another theme to be slowly uncovered.  The delicate exposure of “the other side of the story” reveals that another truth has been developing in tandem with those of the children all along.

One learns that sometimes, or even most times, the parents were actually trying their best. Either they didn’t know what to do, didn’t have a whole lot of options, were stuck dealing with the intensity of their own painful struggles, or their efforts at being “the good parent” and doing “the right thing” were thwarted by others. Internal and external forces can be overpowering.

In some cases, with a twist of responsibility, the presumed deceivers and betrayers, the absent fathers, the aloof mothers, those who upon first glance are the most irresponsible and detestable characters were actually deceived, betrayed, or simply portrayed by others in ways that made them out to be that detestable. When their attempts at reaching out to the children were denied, dismissed, and never mentioned, they simply appeared to be absent.

Or, faced with pressures from others who had more control and power over them, they had to make decisions which seemed selfish but were actually chosen, in good faith, under the assumption that they would promote whatever was in their child’s best interest.

What others, including their children, see on the surface of their actions hardly depicts the depth of their own experience.

Maybe it is the case that they simply are, to the core and for whatever reason, lousy parents.

But maybe not.

If nothing else, a good story will involve characters who, often incapable of being described as clearly “good” or “bad,” are complicated.

Here is my terrific father.
And this is my lovely mother.

The stories of supporting characters are even more difficult to fully present.

With so much time and energy dedicated to filling out the complexity of the main characters’ emotions and experiences it is hardly possible to retell the histories and thoughts of those who remain on the periphery of the main plot. Though they may remain underdeveloped, the secondary characters are by no means insignificant to how the story evolves. For example, did Miss Honey ever date anyone? Was Jerry always so awkward? And what choices were made in Goatman’s life that led him down the path of becoming Goatman?

Since these aren’t the main characters of the stories, the answers to these questions are hardly provided and they appear to be fairly irrelevant anyway. Of course, one should assume that there is an entire back story that informs the motivations and reactions of these apparently two-dimensional figures, but those are things that good actors have to figure out in order to be compelling.

For the audience to understand their stories would require a whole different movie (and that’s why there are such things as prequels and spinoffs). Such unknowns just have to be taken for granted in an effort to appreciate the specific story that we are trying more fully understand as we watch it unfold.

Nevertheless, what should not be overlooked as that understanding develops is that the roles of these supporting characters are very relevant to the lives of the main characters.

Regardless of how or why they got to be the way that they are, their choices, words, and actions still have significant effects. This meta-movie analysis seems helpful for understanding how real life works.

Taking the movie as a metaphor for life, we can see that we each have our own story, that our stories are shaped by those around us, who also are the main characters in their own stories, and that even “supporting characters” are significant to us. Furthermore, we, as supporting characters in the lives of others, should appreciate the effects that we can have on shaping the experiences of someone else, even if we never become intimately involved in their story.

And obviously our “supporting characters” can change.

At some point those on the periphery of our lives can become central figures and vice versa; the most engaging, significant, meaningful, and central people in our live can eventually fade into the background. On one hand, the cast of extras can seem to walk through a revolving door, just passing through for the time being. In that time they might share with us conversations, insights, pains, challenges, wisdom, and memories. On the other hand, the change can be concretely seen in the characters themselves.

For example, I’ve been consumed lately with thoughts about previous influences in my life, people who at one point in time were central figures in my story and whose presence, even fifteen years later, is still felt on profound levels. One of these people was a kid when I knew him best. But, as one should expect, he grew up, got married, and is now a parent himself. Although common sense and everyday experience consistently demonstrate the simple truth that things change, this didn’t mitigate the shock I felt when I finally learned that things really had changed. Over the past number of years while we were out of touch it almost felt as if our stories froze where we had left them. But that doesn’t happen. It took catching a glimpse of him now, and not simply seeing him in my memory, that forced me to reckon with that harsh and wonderful reality that life does go on. People change.

These shifts do not necessarily mean that people become more or less significant to our story on the whole, but they may be related to the changes that occur to and within us as our story changes.

We change, and as we do, the roles that people play in our life change, too. Perhaps we should remember that those changes need not, and should not, be resisted. (To help prepare us for these things, perhaps we should also remember that in life there can be no such thing as a spoiler.)

In addition to thinking back on what I was like as a kid, the other kids I knew, the various parental figures who surrounded us then, and how we kids are now becoming parents ourselves, my attention has also shifted over the past few months to some children I haven’t met yet but for whom I really want to eventually play a positive, supportive, and loving role. I’ve become even more sensitive to the narratives that these children might be forming regarding their own experiences. If there’s any chance that they feel like that have to grow up too fast, I wish for them to know the truth of how the situation that they are in right now has come to be. And I desperately hope that if they don’t understand or feel it now that someday they will be able to appreciate that the people in their lives were doing the best they could.

But in the likely case that the “truth” will never been understood in full, thinking about these children in particular has helped identify a deep hope of mine.

I want for these children to somehow, at sometime, appreciate that lesson that takes many people a very long time to learn: parents are people, too.

Being involved in the everyday life of their father who lives a few hours away from them, I exist on the periphery of their stories in a way of which they are hardly aware. This situation has helped deepen my appreciation for the lives of parents. Our parents have complicated stories filled with many unique scenes, characters, and turns of events.

Not yet being a parent myself, it’s something that I have grown to appreciate in relation to my own parents.

I think it’s amazing to have also gotten to a place with my parents where they talk to me about their experiences with their parents. I’ve also talked with my grandmother about her experience as young parent to my mother. I think these types of conversations help build understanding and compassion, and I think they help strengthen the love and bonds that define what it means to be a family.

Our family relationships may not be picture perfect (although they actually are often the type of relationships that we see in the movies), but they are very real in the sense that they involve real feelings and shape us all in real ways.

Since we are all someone’s child, no matter what the nature of our relationships have been, I hope that each of us can, in some way, come to this level of understanding, which can happen even if the whole of our story or theirs can never be fully known.

This notion of appreciating the complexity of the characters who influence the story of our lives has helped me hone in on a few things that we should already know and live by.

We can take care of ourselves by taking care of our stories.

With our children, parents, friends, and acquaintances, we know that people care about us when they show that they really care to know our story.

We should surround ourselves with people who love us as our stories, who want to watch, listen, and understand us for who we are, as we are. And we must strive to never forget that everyone has a story of their own. As we struggle to understand our own experiences and how they affect who we are, the stories of so many others constantly surround us in their unarticulated silence. That they are unknown to us does not mean, however, that they are insignificant or of little consequence.

The opposite could not be more true.

So, when we can, we should try to learn, listen, watch, empathize, and imagine the stories of others. It is clearly impossible to know and understand everyone’s life story, but if we are granted the opportunity to participate and witness even a scene of their lives, we should take it in with as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. Regardless of whether that scene in their story is lovely, disturbing, romantic, frightening, funny, difficult, confusing, or poignant, it is an important part of their whole life. At that moment when we can learn about and participate in the lives of others, we are placed in a position of deep responsibility, for in that moment, we can take care of another by taking care of their story.

Finally, I want to highlight one important implication about the nature of truth that has been animating my words.

When we think about the narratives of our experiences we are engaging in a kind of story telling. This creates a complicated status for the truth of our experiences, for our stories are important to us as stories. They are not necessarily the archives of real events. Or, at least we need not think of them in such terms.

Instead, we should see that we can only ever tell always-incomplete stories that are riddled with gaps, ambiguities, and many unknowns. We might try to fill in the holes and narrate over these lapses. Sometimes therapy sessions are helpful for filling in the gaps with insights about how and why things happen in ways that we might not be initially inclined to see.

However, as is frequently noted in conversations with one of my best friends, the need for “coherent narratives” can serve as a type of defense mechanism.  We say things like, “If I can explain how and why I did something or responded in a particular way, it helps me feel more in control.” It’s a way to rationalize, organize, compartmentalize, and “clean up” the messiness of our lived experiences.

My favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, is quick to argue along these lines. He notes that the degree of our need for coherence is often a sign of our weakness. We often fabricate–read: falsify–the nature of our experiences in ways that help us deal with life. Simplification through falsification may “help” us such that error, ignorance, and deception may not be unfavorable things, but this of course changes the nature of “truth.”  Hence Nietzsche’s famous question, “Why truth?” and his inquisition on the value of truth.

As we listen to the stories of others and tell and retell our own, we may fight at times over what one person claims to be true.

But arguing over the truth of another person’s account does not resolve any real issues, for the phrase, “There are always three sides to any story–yours, mine, and the Truth” is totally wrong.

When it comes to down to it, there is only yours and mine.

I think this idea is best captured by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. In the section titled, “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed…The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” In war and life, there’s no arguing with the truth as it is experienced, as it seems.

I guess this is why I love those hard, dramatic, emotional movies about relationships. Although they are just stories that people are paid to write and direct, the best of these movies manage to convey experiences that we actually have in real life. They capture the truth of our own stories, why it is important for us to tell them, to have them be recognized by others, even in their incompleteness. As O’Brien explains, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

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