The other night, the wife said to me, “Sometimes, I find myself tempted to utter the words, ‘I wish something exciting would happen soon,’ but I’d like to make sure I’m not in an Agatha Christie novel first.”
Of course, the thing about fiction is narrative arcs are fairly slim compared to our own lives. Authors discard much of what would be a character’s reality in order to convey a particular theme. It’s harder to get to the moral of the story or for the main characters to develop within a set direction if we see what would otherwise be the whole of their existences, the parts of their lives that have no real relevance to the plot. The only dreams they have are going to be rich in symbolism, not the random firing of neurons that produces much of our nocturnal hallucinations. To create a coherent narrative depends upon proper editing, upon the conveyance of information, as opposed to exformation. According to Tor Norretranders, exformation is that data which is discarded in communication. You want to tell a younger man how much you care for him, you might use the phrase, “I love you like a son.” In doing so, you are operating under an assumed shared vision of the father-son relationship and thus don’t need to express verbally all the components thereof—taking pride in his doings, being invested in his well-being, etc.
Now, we are narrative creatures. We create stories. Ask someone about her day at work, and the handful of irritations or the collection of small accomplishments will end up ruling the story more than the 7.5 hours of work as usual. Some people do have wholly terrible days or weeks or months, but the general rule is that our lives constitute a mixture of ups and downs. Our lives are not as storied as we like to imagine. Most of us don’t have recognizable narrative arcs. We don’t know if we’re in that Agatha Christie novel, or perhaps a Raymond Carver short story.
But sometimes, people do acquire recognizable narrative arcs. Last year, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a form a brain cancer known as a glioblastoma. It’s a highly malignant cancer with a median survival of about 14.6 months—and that’s with the full range of treatment. He’s doing well, though. Two surgeries, some rounds of chemo, and plenty of radiation later, and there’s no sign of the cancer in his head, though chances are that it will recur. More than just surviving, though, my friend had turned his energies into raising money for brain cancer research. He ran in the Little Rock Marathon today and has been all across television and various websites telling his story, spreading the word. He’s become a positive, public figure for a rare disease.
That is a recognized story, isn’t it? Man faces unknown danger, being brave. “You’re so very brave”—is what folks say. And what they mean is that he finally has the sort of story in which he can be brave. Most of us are pretty sure that, if faced with some kind of impending peril, we could be brave, too, and maybe we occasionally lament the fact that we don’t have opportunities enough to prove our bravery. To show ourselves for what we are worth.
In fact, I remember once being at a New Year’s Eve meeting of the Navigators, an evangelical group, in Colorado Springs (please don’t ask), and one of the speakers talked about finding Jesus after a misspent youth of heroin and promiscuity. My girlfriend at the time smiled wistfully and whispered to me, “Wow, I wish I had something like that in my past. My Christian witness would be so much stronger.” Because we don’t really tell stories of saints who grew up in the church and went to Sunday worship diligently every week and had those normal, everyday lives that most folks have. Poor middle-class souls facing the trials of not growing up in poverty and not having an acceptable vices to overcome and not selling your bodies for a day’s meal or a moment’s distraction.
Thing is, when someone around us gets one of those stories—strives to battle cancer, returns from a war, has a child, overcomes an addiction, has her first novel defy the odds and win a National Book Award—it can make us feel like secondary characters in our own lives. Suddenly, you’re not the main character—you’re the reasonably supportive friend who comes over to offer a bit of encouragement. Of course, some people decide to make that their main role and can end up imposing upon the lives of others in their desire to be THE friend, the supportive loved one keeping our heroic sufferer of cancer alive by sheer determination. Oh, they are well meaning enough, but such a person can become a bit of a pest as they try to get the narrative spotlight back upon themselves. People can occasionally, even if they don’t admit it, find themselves jealous of folks who’ve suffered.
The problem is our conflation of narrative and worth—but just because something is a well-known story, this does not necessarily mean that the character living that story has anything to offer for the betterment of mankind. In fact, it could well be the opposite. After all, villains have their own story arcs, don’t they? And so, if I ever find myself with a case of the narrative jealousies, I turn to the last page of George Elliot’s Middlemarch and read these last lines:
“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”