So, perhaps you can get to grips with the idea of one central narrative in your life. Work, romance, travel, kids, mastering the ukulele… whatever. We all tend to get wrapped up in one area. But it just doesn’t work that way. While you’re focusing on one area, the others have a habit of getting neglected, then popping up at inconvenient moments with urgent demands. We do need to pay attention to the weaving narratives that make up the complex tapestry of our existence.
Up to now, I’ve considered stories that have one hero – you. In our own stories, we’re the main protagonist who comes up against the trials and tribulations of the world. But in other people’s stories, we can be just as easily be nothing more than an incidental character, cannon fodder to be sacrificed in the cross fire of other’s causes.
A tale of epic proportions
I’ve been thinking about how we can use story theory to make sense of the weaving narratives of our lives in this way. Naturally, it led me to look to master story tellers and their epic narratives for guidance. I’m talking Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolkein, George R.R. Martin and Donna Tartt (to name a few). Or you can find inspiration here from your favourite boxset – whether that’s The Wire, The Walking Dead or (to throw an underrated oldie that I’m rewatching) Deadwood.
All of the above favour multi-character yarns, a weaving of cause and effect worthy of the Bolivian tapestries we’ve been admiring recently. They rely on the skill and dedication of the weaver, who pulls together the separate threads, creating beautiful patterns from a tangled mess. If anything, weaving narratives on this scale come from a desire to reflect life as it is. Not a one-horse show, but a complex, multi-player reality where we are at one the main protagonist, and the incidental passer-by. Every single day we set in motion chains of cause and effect that reverberate further in their influence than we can imagine. As much as our need for stories is a feature of our humanity, so is our interdependence.
I have to admit, considering this can make my brain hurt. It can be hard enough to manage just one aspect our lives, never mind several interlocking narratives that effect us and the people closest to us. And, like the complex tapestry woven over weeks and months, there’s nothing simple or easy about this. But there is some wisdom we can take from the world of epic narratives to help us in our own lives.
1. We’re all playing multiple roles
None of us are a single, simple entity. We’re multifaceted players of many parts. In our daily lives, we effortlessly change from students to teachers, parents to children, party people to professional experts. We can cast ourselves in diametrically opposite roles in different parts of our lives. That’s an incredible thing to recognise. Our complexity allows us to be different things to different people. It gives us our strength in diversity, and our weakness in vulnerability – the aspect that makes us most human, and most lovable. I believe it’s important just to be able to recognise this. To realise that our capacity to play all these parts is something we barely give ourselves credit for. And, that with a little acceptance of this, we can develop greater empathy in all areas of our lives.
2. We’re all in motion
I’m a big fan of the Mortal Engines novels by Phillip Reeve set in a dystopian future where London has become a monstrous vehicular city. It travels through a barren world attempting to capture and absorb smaller towns to feed its growth. This is a great metaphor for each of our individual lives. We’re constantly in motion, always travelling. Of course, journeys mean development. At best, this means constant learning and growth. At worst, it can mean we’re trammelling others with our unstoppable path to progress.
That’s why considering our trajectory in different areas of our lives allows us to control the speed and intensity of our travel. Are there areas where we’re steaming ahead like a runaway engine? Or perhaps other areas are left almost static? As ever, it’s a question of balance. Understanding where the prevailing narrative of our lives lies at any time, means we can strive for balance, by ensuring that those sub-plots bubbling in the background don’t get left behind.
3. The tangled web
Does the whole idea of trying to impose a narrative onto something as messy as life seem slightly insane? In many ways, it is. Traditional narratives are tales of cause and effect, of karma and revenge, of good deeds sown and reaped, or evil ones in their turn. Our greatest stories contain beauty in their very simplicity, or symmetry. Just consider creation myths, parables or fairy tales. But we know that life is anything but orderly, or simple. And that, most of the time, the line of cause and effect is anything but straight and clear.
Our actions are more like spider’s silk, spreading out around us in complex patterns, creating a web of influence and interdependence. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the extent of our connections to others, and the effects of our actions. But over time, it’s often possible to see patterns of behaviour emerging in our lives. Some of these might be creating positive structures within our lives, but what if the opposite is true? That’s something I’ll be looking at in more detail in next week’s post: repetitive ways of being that leave us feeling like we’re going nowhere.
Your life: the boxset
The truth is that no writer or cinematographer has ever come near to recreating something so complex as just one real human existence – despite many valiant efforts. Art is not life, but can life be art? I think it can. In fact, the art of living well is the one subject in which we’re all lifelong students.
“Make your lives a masterpiece, you only get one canvas.” ― E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly
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