Not too long ago I read a book that was replying to a memoir of a crappy childhood called Appalachian Elegy. I have not read that particular book yet, though I do read a fair amount of memoirs that are like it, and I became more interested in reading it when I saw that the book was being savaged by a lot of resentful leftists who seemed to think that it was not right that a white male conservative from the Appalachian diaspora would write about his background in ways that were critical of the lack of work ethic and chemical dependency and broken families that he had to deal with, even while commenting that other people had a different experience than his own. It struck me as rather telling that leftists would not think that someone had the right to talk about their own story from their own perspective if that perspective was not leftist in nature, and it merely confirmed my own understanding of the hypocrisy of leftist gatekeeping and the way that it is highly intolerant of anyone who does not toe their party line. It was also a solemn reminder to avoid being the same sort of hypocrite myself when it came to dealing with the stories of other people.
Yesterday’s sermon from our congregation’s pastor included as its centerpiece the tragic story of David’s counselor Ahithophel, who was the grandfather of Bathsheba. It seems baffling to me that David would know who Bathsheba was and who she was related to and would not suppose that her grandfather would be unhappy about the way that Bathsheba was taken advantage of and her husband was killed. Our pastor expressed the entirely believable sentiment that he would have to fight to suppress a desire to put a hit on someone who harmed any of his adorable granddaughters, and I am sure he is not alone in his fierce sentiment. Ahithophel was a cold-blooded man in his harsh advise to Absalom to sleep with his father’s concubines, thus making reconciliation between father and son impossible, and in desiring to lead a picked force of 12,000 soldiers to put David to death himself, and in his resolution to kill himself when Absalom failed to take the latter advice, thus dooming his rebellion to failure. Instead of throwing himself on the mercy of David, he hung himself after getting his affairs in order, having never apparently had a heart-to-heart about David about what divided these companions and formerly bosom friends. It would appear that the refusal to tell one’s story is often related and connected with resentment.
And yet all too often the stories we tell are full of resentment as well. At the elementary school where many members of my family have attended outside of Plant City, there was a 4th grade assignment where students wrote material to be made into a book, and as is often the case the material that was chosen was highly revealing as to the character of one’s stories. When I was in the fourth grade my book was made up of a series of poems, mostly limericks, which focused on my love of being indoors and my attempts to empathize with chickens, then and now my most favored/common form of animal protein. My brother, on the other hand, provided a story called “Skinned Knee,” which was a classic victim’s tale where I served as a villain who pushed him off his bike, giving him a skinned knee, after which he ran and told on me and I got punished for it. In this particular case the telling of one’s personal story framed an interaction in such a way that there were villains and victims, and where there are likely to be a lot of discrepancies in the way that other people tell the same story based on the details that are included or omitted. Personally speaking, I think life is too complicated most of the time for simple villain and victim tales, as a great many people seek to present themselves as victims to avoid personal responsibility and even the most reprehensible villains are able to paint themselves as at least having been past victims themselves of some great evil or misfortune that helped influence the monsters they became.
If neither our own stories nor the stories of other people can be taken at face value, what is the value of encouraging people to tell their own stories? To a large degree, the main benefit of listening to or reading and seeking to understand the stories that other people help us to understand how they see the world. Even though what is told will be partial in several aspects of the word, to the extent that we are able to better understand those around us we can at least see how they see the world and seek to convey such truth as we would wish to communicate in a way that it is likely to be understood or appreciated. And if the worldview of the person or people we are dealing with is defective enough that it requires correction, we need to know what exactly we are dealing with it before we can engage in any necessary of that rebuke and correction. And we also need to know where our own understanding is partial in the sense of being biased or in the sense of being incomplete, both of which will hinder our ability to correctly diagnose and deal with the flaws of those around us. So let us tell our own story, and let us listen to the stories of others, and let us make sense of what makes these stories so different, even when we are talking about the same things.