The life you save may be your own

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.”
~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

When I was a girl, stories were everything to me:  solace, companionship, beacon, and guide. Much later, stories literally saved my life.

The story I’ve been telling myself this past week is that we are living in a dark time. I believe this story to be true, even though I’ve wanted to believe otherwise–to believe that, perhaps, I’ve got the story wrong or that I’m not seeing all of it or that I’m giving too much importance to the wrong details. I think there is great danger in telling ourselves stories we want to believe even though they aren’t true. I believe this because of my own story, the harm I’ve done because I believed stories that later collapsed around me.

I am fully cognizant, though, that others in my country are telling themselves an entirely different story about who we are and what is happening to us. About who are the protagonists and antagonists and what the central conflict is, about whether that conflict is internal or external.

While there is so much I don’t know, and the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude–one thing I always believe in is the power of story to shape story.

So many of the stories I grew up believing have proven to be false. So many of the stories I’ve told myself have, the past few years, turned out to be fairy tales or myths or wishes more than truths.  The wonderful thing about being a writer, a teller of stories, though, is that you know revision is always an option. When we are open to the stories of others, we always run the risk that it will change our own–that we will realize we have to “kill our darlings,” perhaps throw out whole chapters or abandon what once seemed like the whole point of the thing. To some, I guess, this feels like ruin. We love our stories, and we don’t want them to change. But to me, it feels like possibility and relief. How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.

Whatever story you are telling yourself now, what I hope is that you will tell it to others, that we will all tell our stories to each other and listen to them with empathy. I hope you will listen most to the stories of reliable narrators, those who are seeing clearly rather than clinging to sinking ships and in their panic thrashing at and pushing under those who are in the water to save them. I hope we can collectively write and tell and share our way to a lighter time, to a narrative in which we strapped our lifeboats together and hauled into them as many of us as they could hold.


10 thoughts on “The life you save may be your own

  1. Marian says:

    This is such a beautiful post, Rita, and — odd as though it may seem — it speaks precisely to my experiences of the past school year, and all my dashed hopes/plans/dreams to make a difference in my son’s school. I listened to an episode of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text recently in which the hosts talked about how difficult it is to be the person who is seeing everything clearly, who is SCARED about what he or she is seeing, who cannot seem to make anyone else see/understand/care. (Listening to these podcasts has felt like a lifeline this year; talk about stories, and empathy…) I feel I have fought against reckless and untruthful story-telling (for the noble purposes of having fun and making money) for an entire year. I feel numbed by the lack of empathy I’ve experienced. And I’m in the same boat as you: “the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude” . . . except in my case, I seem to have shifted nearly entirely to silence and solitude 🙁 .

    I SO want to have hope (because it’s really terrible to live without it), and I think if there IS any hope to be found, it has to come by way of the words and sentiments in this post. We have to start seeing that the stories of others are just as valid as our own. And we have to start making connections between our privilege and how we live and what we believe we deserve. (i.e., we need to really, truly understand the ways in which our stories affect other people’s stories.) I fear that if we don’t, things will only get worse, and when that happens it will be impossible to rescue more than a tiny fraction of those bobbing in the sea. Dark times, indeed.

    (What a depressing comment. I’m sorry, Rita. In happier news, I’m very glad to have another book to add to my TBR list. And in 45 minutes my 13-year-old son will be home from his last day of school. It was a great year for him, at least 🙂 .)

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,

      Your comments are never depressing. I always, always appreciate them. For whatever it’s worth, my therapist this week told me that depression and anxiety are rational responses to what is happening–signs of mental distress, but not illness in the way we typically think of mental illness (disordered/distorted thinking). In fact, telling yourself that depression/anxiety as a response to what is going on is wrong would be a kind of denial, which is its own kind of harm. I found this comforting, so I’m sharing it with you. Our conversation was about how to cope, and the first thing he asked me about was if I have a community of others who I can be open and honest with. As much as social media can feed my anxiety (which is why I sometimes take breaks from it), it also connects me with others. I’m really glad that it has allowed me to connect with you.

      We talked, too, about what keeps us silent when we see things that others aren’t–especially things they won’t want to believe. I first became deeply worried when McConnell blocked Obama from filling the empty Supreme Court seat. I wrote about it here ( but only in the most careful, reasoned tone. I was very careful with my words, and qualified many of them. I was afraid that I would be dismissed or viewed as an alarmist on the fringe. A conspiracy theorist. I was afraid, I guess, of losing the regard of others. That’s not an unreasonable or silly fear; we need our tribes to survive, and we need them not to expel us. But I wonder, now, how things might have been different if those who could see what was coming long before it did had sounded an alarm. Had used the kind of rhetoric that those on the other side of this divide have been using for decades. I always hated it–found it ridiculous and manipulative. But it sure has been effective. I’m not suggesting that we should become what we so hate, but I’m also wondering what the cost of caution and modulated voices might prove to be.

      Finally, someone today said to me that most change is incremental and local. So please don’t ever tell yourself that the advocacy you do in your son’s school isn’t important. It is. And you never know how your impact might ripple, creating change you’ll never see or know about.

      Take care. I’m glad we get to meet here.

      • Marian says:

        I’m wondering if you’ve read the book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs. In that sometimes wonderful webbing way of the Internet (one thing leading to another, to another, to another) I just came across mention of his book this morning, and this bit of a review by a person named “Chillyfinger”: “Jacobs hits the nail on the head by pointing out that thinking is a social activity. Our opinions are as much a ticket to the “in group” as they are a sign of careful deliberation. We need to be part of a group and know who is *not* in the group. We rationalize opinions that will qualify us to use the same words as others like us, or others we would *like* to be like. It’s the key to a lot of things.”

        That, plus your therapist’s words on community and coping completely mesh with the difficulties I’ve faced this year. I feel like such a mis-fit, because this “thinking-as-a-social-activity” is something I simply can’t do. I can’t be ok with rationalized opinions and outright lies. And because I can’t, my community has shrunk to near-non-existence. I quit the library in March, which meant the loss of incidental/casual human interaction; I basically have just one IRL friend in this small community, and although I’ve been very, very glad to have had her support this year I’ve also tried really hard not to be too much, not to say too much, not to ask too much; I’ve noticed I’m keeping my head down in the grocery store, feeling the weight of anxiety that comes with hoping I don’t run into anyone from that damn PTO . . . it’s all just been really, really hard.
        All of which is to say, I too, am really glad we get to meet here, Rita.

        • Rita says:

          I think I know what you’re talking about. I’ve often felt out of step with the groups I find myself in. I suspect many people find me to be a pain in the ass and wish I’d be quiet. (Or maybe just that I’m annoying. But still, that I should be quiet.)

          Sometimes I do just go quiet. Even here. And, being the introvert I am, it requires effort for me to get out to find and be with those who see things as I do. (Also, though, I’m hesitant to do only that. I want to question my thinking, and I want to be with others who value the same. Maybe that is the really hard thing to find?) Sometimes the idea of just battening down my hatches and living out the rest of my life quietly, largely disengaged from the rest of the world, seems like a good idea. But I can never stay in that place for long.

          This weekend I went to Portland’s march for families. There was something that felt really good about walking through the city and feeling some kind immediate kinship with anyone else I encountered who was wearing white. It was good to stand as part of a group of people with whom I most likely do not have complete agreement, but with whom I share enough agreement. I really hope you can find a way to find those people in your community. And in the meantime, I’m glad we get to meet here, too. Especially for those times when I can’t get myself to get out in the world.

          • Marian says:

            “I suspect many people find me to be a pain in the ass and wish I’d be quiet. (Or maybe just that I’m annoying. But still, that I should be quiet.)”
            — This made me laugh this afternoon, Rita. Because: ME TOO!! This was actually the very thing I discussed with my therapist the last time I saw him. His response was something to the effect of “So what (?!) if people want you to be quiet?”

          • Rita says:

            I agree with your therapist! Why is your discomfort more tolerable to you than theirs? I have at times felt so irritated/annoyed/exasperated with others who feel perfectly free to broadcast their controversial opinions when they know others in the room won’t share them and at my (perceived) need to hold my tongue in order to keep the peace, but I’ve come to realize that I am just as free as they to wag mine. It really is on me to deal with my own feelings and not on others to manage mine (or me to manage theirs). It’s hard to unlearn lessons ingrained in us for so many years when we were so very young, isn’t it?

  2. Shannon says:

    I’ve been having trouble corralling my thoughts lately, and that applies to not only my own writing, but comments on other blogs as well. So, I will just simply tell you that this piece was great. And this particular bit…

    “How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.”

    …was something I really, REALLY needed to hear today. So, thank you for putting that concept into words that resonated with me in a way that hadn’t before. While you’re telling me what I need to hear, can you remind me of the importance of adequate sleep?! haha! How bleak and frantic and overwhelming life seems when one is overtired!! I KNOW this!! And yet, I consistently sabotage my mental wellbeing by staying up too late. And the kicker is…I LOVE SLEEPING! Why do I do this?! Sorry, for the tangent…I need a(nother) nap. 😉 Thank you for being a person on this planet, Rita. I’m so glad I know you. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      OK, GO TO BED!
      Seriously, sleep is so important to well-being. I have big struggles with sleep issues. No problem going to sleep. In fact, I often have a terrible time staying awake when I really need to. But staying asleep? Whole other thing altogether. I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. During the school year, this means I am constantly sleep-deprived (hence, the trouble staying awake later in the day). When I can get a little run of good sleep (even one night, really) I feel so, so different. Better. Calmer. More balanced. It’s a horrible chicken-egg thing. (If I could sleep better, I’d feel better and I’d sleep better. Arghhh.)

      I’m glad these words were useful for you. I keep trying to round them up. I’m also having some trouble in that area, though. It’s understandable, I think. Weird times we’re living in.

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