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The self, the story, the truth

“Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.”

Little did I know when I wrote that almost two decades ago, that No Story is the truth.

We tend to think of perfection as the perfect story: perfect body, perfect job, perfect home, perfect life. And when something is perfect, what more is there to say about it?

Tolstoy wrote, in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s rare to tell the story of the happy family, or the perfect person: what is there, really, to tell? But the unhappy family, the imperfect person -–ah, there is an interesting story. Even last year’s Barbie movie starts out with a couple of minutes of saccharine perfection, and just as it becomes insufferably boring, angst sets in. Something rattles perfection.

The story, the pith, is in challenge, difference, imperfection. So if we want a good story, we need not fear messiness or mistakes; that’s what makes for a good story, and good stories are important: they help us make meaning of life; stories help us weave coherence between sometimes unrelated-seeming aspects of our personal narrative; they help us relate to one another through shared semantic space. And when I wrote those opening words above, I was pointing at this: the importance of the story, not the perfection; the importance of the process, not the product; the cliché of the journey, not the destination.

(The cliché exists for a reason. There are different ways to phrase it, and it may or may not be attributable to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the idea has percolated into the mainstream so thoroughly that yes, it’s cliché.)

The reason I mention all this is that perhaps I am understanding now, in a deeper way than before, that in fact, the story isn’t the interesting part at all.

Our stories are narratives woven around our sense of personal identity, history, and accomplishment. So when someone asks who we are, we think of our notion of “ourselves” and tell part of that story. For instance, when you think of yourself, what do you think of? Perhaps some first identifying elements like your name, age, gender, and job, or social roles like friend, daughter, husband, neighbor. Maybe you think of your hobbies and interests, your childhood experiences, and things you hope and plan for the future. Do you think of your inner thoughts and dreams, too?

All of these are contents of your life; they give color, nuance, and richness to the experience we call life. And these elements are all important for that purpose. But what if what we usually think of as “the self” is nothing of the sort?

When you think of yourself…well, what is the self, really?

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