The supremacy of a story

As illustrated by the NY Times framing of the rash of Omicron in Puerto Rico (see previous two posts) the way you tell a story makes all the difference in what the people who hear your story believe and what they take away from it.

One frame on the spike in covid cases in PR might focus on the poverty and lack of humane and efficient health care for millions of American citizens, including, conspicuously, natives of Puerto Rico. One frame might, as my doctor friend does, stress that Omicron is rarely a serious health threat to vaccinated people and that breakthrough infections are to be expected with a strain so infectious. There are multiple ways to tell the same story. Which version of the story you believe will determine how you feel about the things described by the storyteller.

Nothing humans do is done without a convincing story behind it. We have a strong need to believe in our good intentions, pure motives, righteousness, that we are doing things for a good and sometimes even noble reason. Only a sociopath acts without the need to justify himself. For the rest of us, a story we believe in is necessary for any action or inaction we take. Some stories speak to our best impulses, others to our worst, but any story we truly believe can motivate us, for better or worse.

People who storm the Capitol, battle the police, chant about hanging the Vice President, shooting the Speaker of the House in the head, defecate in the halls of Congress, do it because they truly believe the intolerable story that they’ve had their legitimate presidential choice stolen from them. The supremely infuriating story of a stolen election, a rigged system in state after state riddled with widespread systemic fraud, massively fraudulent results — a stolen landslide victory — hidden even by corrupt, smelly, traitorous RINOs, is told to them over and over by everyone they trust.

It is not even a matter for them of suspending disbelief, or asking how so many Republicans won in 2020 on the same ballots Joe Biden and his co-conspirators rigged to steal only the presidency from the rightful winner. They will never ask why Republican state officials and federal officials appointed by Trump confirmed that the election with the largest turnout in American history was also one of the most secure, that the incidence of voter fraud was, as always, infinitesimal.

The story you believe as you gather with fellow faithful patriots, watching a blood curdling betrayal video on a giant screen and getting fired up to storm the Capitol and Stop the Steal, covers all of that. The lack of actual evidence for your point of view, or that it may appear illogical in light of the facts, is only the final proof of how cunning and vicious the evil, inhuman, traitorous enemy is!!!

We humans are simply this way, and we are probably the only creatures who act based on a story that tells us how to see things and what our duties are. Few other species march off in long columns to kill and die based on a fervent belief in the story that Jesus died on the cross to cleanse the world of sin and violence.

I’m reading a fascinating book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, by a psychiatrist of mysterious origins who wrote as Alice Miller. It is in part about the stories told to justify all sorts of harmful things done to children, often by generally well-meaning parents. Depending on who’s point of view you look at things from, you will emerge with very different stories about a family dynamic. This framing inevitably reminds me of my father’s story about me. Here’s a snapshot, told to me from my father’s pre-deathbed point of view:

You are a very angry person with an explosive fucking temper and a mouth like a fucking toilet bowl. You’ve always been troubled and challenging and had an irrational hatred of authority. From the time you came home from the hospital as a newborn you stared at me with those big, unblinking, black, accusing eyes, you judged me harshly from the very beginning. Nothing I ever did was right, no sacrifice I made was ever appreciated, you always just angrily attacked me. You were “born with a hard-on against the world”, and since people can’t change their essential nature, no matter how much they delude themselves that they can, it was preordained that you and I should have been lifelong adversaries engaged in an existential war that could never end.

A hard story to swallow for me. It always was and always will be. It leaves out many important parts of my character and personality, any progress I’ve made in my life, any valuable lesson I’ve ever learned, reduces me to one intolerable trait justifying an angry reaction in turn. More ridiculous still is the self-prophecy aspect of this story, the more forcefully the story is told the more it comes true. Anger is predictable for a child insistently told that even as a newborn baby he was simply an angry, challenging little bastard and will always be treated as such.

Telling me variations on this story over and over did nothing to help my father, outside of making him always feel justified in fighting me on everything. The simplistic story did nothing to help me. It only hurt us both, and it hurt my mother and my sister. But there it was, preferable, by a million miles, to the awful story my father finally told me as he was dying:

My life was basically over by the time I was two. I never experienced love as a child, only brutal punishment for things I didn’t do and fear. I grew up in terror, hungry all the time, for food and for things I didn’t even know what they were. I finally exceeded the low expectations placed on me as a stupid boy and started a family of my own. The anger I expressed toward you, you have to understand, it was really nothing personal. I’d have done the same to any child of mine. Nothing you could have done would have changed the story I believed, and I am so sorry to have put that burden on you and your sister, the burden of having an immature, angry horse’s ass as a father.

Imagine how painful and threatening that would have been for any father to feel and try to work through prior to having a few final days to consider his life as he was dying.

On the other hand, and contradicting my father’s undisturbed fifty year story about me, I was a peaceful and supportive listener as my father was speaking his last few hours of thoughts. As he catalogued his regrets I told him that he should have no regrets, that he’d done the best he could, that if he could have done better he would have.

My calmness was possible only because I’d gone through a course of sometimes excruciating psychoanalysis that left me at times feeling like all my skin had been peeled off and I was only nerve endings. The only memorable benefit of this painful process was that, at a certain point, only months before my father discovered his death was less than a week away, I was able to concretely grasp that my father’s unyielding story about me had been told because he needed to tell it. He told it for his benefit, needed to believe it in order to live, that he could not change it and that if he was capable of doing any better he surely would have. This understanding allowed me to take a step away from my anger at my father, since I finally understood he couldn’t figure out how to do any better, pitiful as that also is, and that my understandable anger toward him was most painful to myself. I was able to let some of it go, and not a moment too soon.

I sometimes think of this calm ending of the long war with my father as a kind of mutual blessing. I thought so more at the time than I do now, fifteen years later. His admission, hours before he died, that he felt me reaching out many times over the years to try to make peace (I had), but that his emotional immaturity had prevented him from taking a step toward me, gave me valuable validation that I had not been the belligerent cartoon he always insisted I was. He saw his inability to ever compromise or admit fault as the mark of an unforgivable asshole, but he hoped for forgiveness anyway. Easing his suffering however I could, short of lying, helping make his death as gentle as possible, was my main thought as I listened, so it was easy to make him feel forgiven, for whatever help that might have been to him at the end.

Knowing all this about myself, and having lived how an insane story can be pressed quite rationally and reasonably, stated as fact and embraced by others with cult-like fealty, I accept my own strong, uncomfortable feelings when someone unfairly blames me entirely for something that is only, in small part, my fault.

Here’s my story now: I take the burden of things I do wrong and do my best to make amends, but I don’t carry the burden of a story that paints me as the entire problem, to make someone else feel better about their story. That shit, you understand, is for the birds. I simply can’t do it. Neither should anyone else.

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