Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Power of a Story

As humans, it's often said that we are social creatures, or animals, and like many cliches it's quite true, and fundamentally so.  But we are also more.
L. Buck; Borned; 1871; Died; 1934
Consider this picture.  I came across it while placing flags for Veterans' Day.  It's a simple, cement tombstone, with the captioned words written apparently with a stick.  The way the 'd's were carved, it seemed the person was used to holding a brush, and was probably right handed, pulling the letters toward themself, but by Borned, (which took me a bit to decipher), was probably an artist rather than a writer.  The artist theory seemed made more likely by the uniformity, it seems they took great care making sure it looked right, perhaps from deference, perhaps from lack of practice. It took me a  Puzzled, I find myself wondering, "Who was this L. Buck?"  The grave was half-covered by a bush which was being tended, the   Immediately, what comes to mind is the image of a steelworker, working hard for all 63 years of his life.  He was beloved by his family as a father and husband but was never able to scrape more than a few nickels together, and he died in abject poverty.  His one child was struck down early in life to a fever and his wife, uneducated and heartbroken, wrote what she could to commemorate his life.  She got the important parts.
I thought about it a moment, and realized that, this being Oklahoma, he was probably a farmer rather than a steelworker, and his death probably coincided with the Dust Bowl.  He died, penniless and unable to afford the healthcare necessary to survive.
Then I realized, why did he have to be a good guy?  He could have been a cruel taskmaster, driving his workers to their deaths every day they toiled in his fields (still a farmer), and he died, uncelebrated and unmourned.  His grave was marked only because his wife had sought solace in her faith after years in an abusive marriage from which she could not escape, and it was the Christian thing to do.  She lived off of his fortune comfortably, donating much of it to charity upon her death.
OK, there's some projection here, a fear of living a life without importance, and granted, some elements in my story are more convincing than others- that he was a farmer, for instance, and that whoever "inscribed" the tombstone was uneducated, and his death was related to the Dust Bowl, but none of them are demanded.  The idea that he is even a male is hard to justify.  But I dispense with the second story and return to the first, anyway- I can't help it!  It's a tragic tale, with a lifetime of accomplishment, love, work, pain, summed up in a legacy of 3 words, 2 numbers and a letter, a testament to ignominy.
One more story.  A few months ago, I impulsively stopped in at a garage sale here on base.  The family had clearly just had a baby, and seemed to be trying to make room.  They were a young couple, about my age (27 at the time), and had a bunch of kitsch left out for people to buy.  Perusing it, I was fascinated by these hideous porcelain shell decorations (similar to porcelain angels, but with a poorly executed nautical motif), being sold for 75 cents a piece.  Again, I began concocting a story- the couple, young and in love, take a honeymoon trip to the Carribean- yes, to Trinidad; I felt vindicated, as one of the shells was inscribed with the name.  Moved but deeply uninterested in the shells, I tried very hard to find something else I might actually use, but I felt compelled to buy something, even if it was just a token, to wish this couple best of luck.  I settled on a key chain, which they wanted 10 cents for.  I gave them a dollar and left.
Of course, I could be (and probably am, in all three stories) completely wrong.  That's not the point.
The point is, the desire for a satisfying narrative is very powerful.  We look for patterns.  We want to make sense of things, and narratives often do that better than facts, at least at first (especially as capricious as life can be).  I think it's one reason we sometimes find ourselves believing foolish things.  It's also a way salesmen take advantage of us- playing to our observations and assumptions, like wearing a wedding ring when they aren't married.  We just sort of fill in the gaps as necessary, and don't think too hard on them unless we make an effort.  It's easy to get swept along in the momentum.  Maybe I'll catch myself the next time, but maybe I don't want to.  After all, the poignancy of the stories seems to give homage to the hardships of our own lives, which we can't always make sense of, and make it seem just a little bit easier to handle.
So next time you find yourself filling in the blanks on your own, put in that little bit of effort and see how warranted your final version really is- maybe you shouldn't put too much stock in it, but you should certainly enjoy the story.

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