Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Telling our story
In my last post on personality I used three analogies or metaphors in my attempt to get at what shaping my personality might be for me – making a jigsaw, climbing a mountain and launching a ship. In this post I wish to use another analogy or metaphor – namely telling our personal story. I have already referred to this in a previous post. The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney is never too far from my mind when I think of things cultural, personal and philosophical. I have already mentioned his wonderful book On Stories (Routledge, 2002) in these pages and quoted quite a bit therefrom. A brief reference to this book is necessary here again as it is very much ad rem with my subject. In a way what I’ll say here is very much influenced by my reading of this book and my re-reading several times of certain sections of it.
Everyone longs to be able to tell their story because quite simply that defines their identity. Just think for a moment of an adopted child who has never known his/her parents. There have been many heart-rending radio and television programmes made about the often futile searches made by this “abandoned” offspring for their parents. Why? Quite simply because they don’t know the whole story; they are not in possession of the full facts of their origins; they are somehow bereft of a full and complete identity. They dearly want to hear their story from either or both blood parents. They want to listen to the teller, and then perhaps tell that story – their full story – to their children. Even if we are not adopted we all like to learn more about our grandparents and forebears to give us more “rootedness” in our identity.
I am reminded of an old story I heard many years ago at college. This story told about the sad affair of the boy who had no story to tell at the “rambling house” or “teach airneáil” (i.e., a well-known and popular local house where neighbours would gather to tell stories and sing songs.) This boy went home crestfallen as he had failed in connecting with the local community through story or song. The brilliant and famous Irish novelist and short story writer, Bryan MacMahon believed that story was one of the most effective ways to teach a class. Any subject, he felt, could be taught creatively through its medium. Admittedly, the teacher had to do his lesson planning and homework. Bryan was a brilliant teacher and stayed teaching all his working life, never tiring of opening young minds to the mystery and wonder of life. One only has to read his brilliant short story “The Windows of Wonder” which was one of the stories on my Intermediate Certificate course in secondary school to realise his commitment to the imagination. This beautifully crafted story tells of a young teacher who arrives in a valley “that had let imagination die.” She brings back stories, but is frowned upon by the other teachers, and the principal. I won’t spoil the story for anyone who has never read it, but it states in narrative form MacMahon’s philosophy of imagination or of story.
How often have we heard the fact that the experience of humans in the modern world is that of fragmentation? The students I teach today lead more fragmented lives than that of their counterparts 25 years ago when I was already 2 years teaching. Why? Well the structures both of society and family have changed radically. Not alone has the formative structure of the extended family broken down but so too has that of the nuclear family. There are so many absent dads today. Students talk openly and in an unembarrassed manner about their “ma’s boyfriend” or their “da’s partner” – as indeed they should. I am making no value judgements here, merely adverting to hard facts. More often than not, we teachers find that we have to deal with a growing number of grandparents who are rearing the children their own offspring have abandoned for one reason or another.
Coupled with this sense of the fragmentation of family, there is the exponential growth of information, the sheer volume of which is mind-boggling if one has not got the proper education to be able to access that which is of relevance to your own life. Then there’s the whole commercialisation of existence – you’re not a success (indeed you’re a nobody really) if you have not got X, Y or Z. Young girls are led to believe that if they have not got the figure of the latest model to hit our TV or cinema screens then they are ugly and useless. Growing up was never easy; becoming an adult was always a hard task. Yet add all of the implications of the last two paragraphs into the mix and you get confusion and fragmentation as regards identity.
This is where the role of story comes in. As Richard Kearney puts it: “In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments, into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” (op. cit., p. 4) It has been recognised from time immemorial that the need for stories is an indispensable ingredient of any meaningful society. Likewise, I believe strongly with Kearney, that the need for story is also an indispensable element in any meaningful individual life. Hence teachers and counsellors much be equipped both to encourage children to tell their story (creatively and authentically in a classroom situation but not in any way that would breach privacy or hurt the child’s sensitivities obviously) and to listen sympathetically to that story and by so doing authenticate the young student in the integrity of their story.
In such a way, then, all adults help young people and indeed other adults to put the pieces of the jigsaw together, to climb the mountain or set the ship of identity afloat or by using the current analogy, to tell their story which is both a practical activity as well as a metaphor. The growing individual begins, then, to put all the apparently disparate experiences, all the little significant and even insignificant events, all the ups and downs, all “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, all the good things and the bad, all the smaller stories into a bigger story which shapes and forms their own identity. The story exists not alone in the teller’s mind, or even in the listener’s mind or even in the characters and events related, but somewhere dynamically in the interplay of all three. By listening to the story we authenticate the person and they us. In such a manner with Kearney I aver that “the untold life is not worth living.” (op.cit., p. 156)
Above I have pasted the most recent picture I have of my beautiful demented ninety year old mother. The cuddly toy is a lion which she occasionally calls by her sons' names. She is happy in her demented, dissociated, broken world. And that surely is all that matters - being happy in yourself! This picture was taken two weeks ago.