My post Story time was not meant to imply that all stories about the past are equally true, or that stories — narratives largely about what is true and what is not — are whatever we claim they are, only that they feel more or less compelling to us based on how well they satisfy what we need. Stories make us feel a certain way about ourselves, some sit comfortably, others are very hard to sit with. We prefer the ones that confirm that we are right to feel and act the way we do.
You can’t argue about what somebody deeply feels, the feelings themselves are as real as anything else in this hall of mirrors we homo sapiens live in. It may surprise you to learn that an old friend believes the story that you chose to viciously torture your closest friend and sadistically refused to let up until he cried uncle by giving you something you felt he was withholding from you. Your surprise at this unexpectedly harsh portrayal may prevent you from calmly asking a reasonable follow-up question.
Even an open-ended expression of confusion like “have you ever known me to act that way, in our long experience as friends?” may or may not give you the answer you seek, because once strong feelings are tied up in believing a story you were convinced of, by the sincere tears of someone else you love, the issues become very clear to you and such questions are seen as yet more Devil quoting scripture to evade all responsibility, all decency. The fact will remain, whether it can be shown or not, that you are the kind of person who tortures your closest friends and then fights to the point of exhaustion, like Trump, to deny every count against you, reasonable or not. If you feel your name was unfairly harmed, that’s your problem for acting so despicably and still insisting you did nothing wrong.
This is one reason a Jewish scholar called Chofetz Chayim wrote a long treatise on the importance of not harming others with malicious talk. You may be hurt, you may be angry, you may be sorely tempted to prove that you are right in your very strong feelings — but tread carefully when letting loose an arrow that can puncture somebody else’s good name. You cannot take that arrow back. You have done permanent harm to somebody by, in your hurt, expressing a one-sided view of their unworthiness to be trusted or loved. Refraining from this kind of thing can be hard to do, especially when we are under stress, hence a shelf full of volumes by this sage on the subject of holding your tongue when angry at, or hurt by, someone lest you damage their good name in the community.
On the other hand, if someone has molested children, and successfully hidden this, and you are aware of it, you have a duty to warn the other parents and members of the community. The prohibition about speaking ill does not apply to people who do unprovoked, terrible harm to others. We all do harm to others, but most of it is subjective and very little of the harm we do is done deliberately. Not everything harmful is subjective or accidental, of course. Rape is not subjective, murder is not subjective, lying under oath is not subjective, these things may be disclosed to others who may be harmed. In those cases, we have a duty to warn others.
In the ordinary run of things, the stories we tell are harmless enough most of the time. We recall one detail another person has no recollection of, we talk about who has a better memory, we reminisce, we tell stories about the past that may or may not have happened exactly the way we tell them, but these shared stories bind us. They become part of us, many of these stories, the ones that make impressions on us. At the same time, we are bombarded by stories that make no sense in light of the facts, that rely on “alternative facts” and emotional buzzwords calculated to make people want to take our side against demonic enemies.
If you break a law, and law enforcement negotiates with your lawyers for a year, and then you partially comply with the law, and then a subpoena is sent for the rest of the unlawfully taken things, and you defy the subpoena, and in a quiet follow-up visit from authorities your lawyer signs a statement that everything unlawfully taken has been returned, and then a lawful search, conducted after a detailed showing that there are probably stolen items remaining with you, yields a truck full of unreturned items, proving that you have been lying all along (or, as the Grey Lady styles it “raising questions as to whether you have been fully forthcoming”), you may tell the same story this way:
Evil partisans just want my blood, they have been howling for it for a long, long time. If they can do this to me, illegally raid and ransack my home on bogus “charges”, they can do it to anybody (who accidentally “steals” sensitive government documents) and they will do it, and much worse, to you and everyone you love. This will not stand and we have to show strength, force and resolve and fight like hell, with our beautiful Second Amendment, if necessary, because if we don’t fight like hell we’re not going to have a White Christian Nation any more.
In personal life, as in politics, the stories we tell will hit the mark or miss based on how compellingly they play to our emotions. What is more compelling than a dear old friend, a very tough and private person, telling you, in great pain, that her mate, a strong and well-respected man, wept every night because the torture he was forced to undergo at the hands of his merciless “best friend” was so painful, so vicious, so unfair, so inhuman? All because this “best friend” was hell-bent on being right, and getting what he needed, no matter the cost to others, and his monstrous will was twisted to the inhuman goal of forcing the poor guy to comply with his distorted version of the story.
Hard, very hard, to be a human living, and trying to be kind, in hard times. If you need more examples, look in any direction. Before any of us add the personal troubles we all have, the list of urgent threats we all face — ongoing, literally fascist take-over of our experiment in democracy, continued destruction of the habitat for all living things, a deadly pandemic we have “compromised” with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers over (almost 500 Americans died of Covid-19 yesterday, c’est la vie), the normalization of lying and political violence in public life, amid systemic injustice, an epidemic of hopelessness, self-harm, murder and suicide, to name a few, are a very heavy load, before any personal worries enter the equation. The shared threats alone are quite enough to overwhelm the strongest among us. Plus, none of us, alone, are really that strong. Our best hope is with others.
That’s why it is so destructive to spread a poisonous story about a friend in the small community of mutual friends. Take away a person’s good name and you take away their hope for any understanding, from anybody. Not something that’s easy to defend, except, of course, with a truly compelling story.