Other Peoples’ Stories


I’ve been considering lately the boundaries between telling my own stories and betraying the confidences of others. Sharing other people’s stories is akin to gossip; no good comes of this. Yet, that borderland between another’s experiences and my responses… Well, my reactions belong to me, other’s stories do occasionally feature me in a supporting role. Therefore, at least that segment of the narrative is mine to share if I feel so inclined.

This territory becomes more confused the more closely related to someone I am. The stories of those I love affect me profoundly, shape pieces of me, but they are not mine. It could be a violation to share them. Even sharing only my responses runs close to this transgression.

To ease away from this abstraction, I present the conundrum of parenting, I think all parents require the solace of others along the same journey. It is, I believe, the most terrifying space in which one may live — full, overripe with emotional fruit and largely immune to our efforts to prune or nourish. We are present for our children, trying to prevent soul-damaging harm, yet permitting enough Real Life that they may learn… Anyway, in this communion of parenting, we often exchange stories of confusion, frustration, hurt, and fear with other parents. Often, we search for guidance or reassurance about what it is precisely that we ought to do. Are we wrong? Missing something? Over-reacting? This need, this compulsion even, to trade information keeps us sane in our profound helplessness — but these stories are not actually ours. They are the opening chapters in our child’s life. In sharing our perspective, are we violating our child’s privacy?

Here, I acknowledge that I do not know. My child’s narrative arcs are not mine, but they do fill a significant place in my own biography as woman and mother. Possibly to her horror, her stories are part of mine.

Of course, the twin challenge to determining which tales are mine to tell is the laying aside of our human narcissistic tendencies. She is not about me. And I, while an important part of her life, am not the central character. While my role today is significant, I will not always be so pivotal to her every day. In fact, if I do my job successfully, I will become less essential over time, a piece of her first foundation — but only a piece of the woman she becomes. In this sense, she is actually more critical to my story than I am to hers, for she will always be my first, perhaps my only child, and while I will always be her only mother, one’s mother is only one of the key relationships in life, alongside her father, herself, her lovers and partners in crime and mischief, glory and hope. And, of course, someday she may find herself in the mother’s role, handing off the baton of genetics and shared history to another individual. The focus must shift, and the ownership of these stories should shift correspondingly.

All this thought leaves me no where.

Are any of these stories too sacred to share?

I consider my opinion of my parents’ all-too-willingness to tell my stories. I resent their discourse. This could be complicated by the fact that they fundamentally fail to recognize who I am as separate from them, and they freely redesign facts to fit their purpose, to further their own ambitions. They have never learned to abandon their narcissism. In their hearts, I am merely an extension of their own identity.

Well, of course I would find that offensive. To use my stories as social currency – that’s just vicious.

The purpose of story-telling must matter, then. We’ve established that using another’s experiences to further personal gain — as a form of name-dropping, really — is sick, pathetic, unenlightened, disrespectful, ignorant… and so on. I maintain, however, that story-telling in an effort to find a universality to experience, to touch the pieces of us that are common, to build community or at a minimum to shore up solace and companionship, these are the motivations behind art, perhaps even all art in any medium. Stories, mythic and all other forms of true, are one of our oldest and most dear forms of art.

We seek understanding from others, forgiveness from ourselves, acceptance from our communities, and the all-important reassurance that we are not alone, in experience, in fear, in perspective, in hope. We use our narrative forms to demonstrate our individuality, but we crave approval and enjoyment (or at least sympathy) of our stories as proof that we are still part of society. Though individual, we are not alone; though part of the body, we are not faceless.

Of course, there must be a borderland, a liminal territory, between us and others. Of course, the stories of others is that frontier. It is our navigational skill which drafts and implements our treaties, and our careful observance of authorship is our ambassador, our first line of defense and of peace-keeping, our personification of international savoir-faire.

To return to the notion of gossip, this would be akin to a black-market redistribution of other people’s / nation’s goods. No wonder then that gossip is so painful a violation of trust and inter-personal treaties, no great surprise that it causes war.

One must purchase the rights to disseminate the creations of another. I must share only what is mine, what I possess clearly and freely. In other phrasing, only my own expressions and emotions, only my own reactions are only truly mine to keep or to share. All else is supposition and hearsay. All else belongs to others, and to offer up those bits would be a theft.

My stories then are only my observations, and are limited to my understanding and available information. They may be incorrect or inaccurate in their conclusions. Then again, they may be more true, more honest, than the tales from the owners themselves. The emotional proximity of ownership can be limiting.

We are wise then to remember the limitations of our narrators. They can only speak of the truth as they know it — and, of course, sometimes they lie.

But that is another story.

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About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

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