I’ve been reading Reynolds Price’s Three Gospels, and finding it refreshingly full of failure rather than heroics, full of the fumbling human ordinariness of its characters. Even the itinerant homeless son of a carpenter, on his “hectic and besieged itinerary”, wandering from place to place while working miracles for a couple of years, even this character the size and scale of a human being. Nothing more. But encounters revealed in that brief life have taken on rigidity and resonance over the years, attached to meanings we’ve created, stories we’ve told. No wonder people return again and again to what has been found of the original documents, searching for what’s buried beneath the story we’ve been told.
A friend of mine argues with her partner. At the moment, she knows, it doesn’t matter to her so much whether or not she actually is right. She knows she’s telling a story. “I need to be right about this,” she says. I need to be right.
Another book*, one that I read and reread for many years, tells the story of the gospels from the point of view of the disciple who loved Jesus best. This was the disciple who believed earnestly that this man he followed was who he claimed to be. Consequently, he believed that Jesus had come to fulfill the scriptural predictions: the book is told from the point of view of Judas. Crucifixion, Judas told himself, was only the one of many necessary fulfillments, without which every other part of the story lost its credibility. In a contemporary retelling, he could have been cast as an agent, an ad man. A true believer, his own role in the story as horrible as he could imagine, and yet he couldn’t imagine any other way the story could go. Victim of his own story, villain of ours, but mostly just a human being, fastened securely to the stories he believed were true.
People telling stories about the tragedy in Japan are telling their own stories, because that’s what we do. We tell our own story, using the material available. The ones I’ve been hearing are the ones that fit my own anxiety, the insecurities and fears that lay dormant but watchful, waiting for events upon which to drape themselves. The stories I hear are the ones I recognize, based in what I already believe to be true. Not only the stories I tell, but the ones I find, confirm the stories I’ve already created. Judas, the true believer, would have done no differently.
And yet many stories that people are actually telling from Japan are sounding like this: I am so proud of my country. I am so proud of my people, I am proud of Japan. We will be okay.
They’re putting things in wheelbarrows, one shovelful at a time. They’re cleaning up, as humans do. Unnamed workers travel daily to the nuclear plant to try and find the bolts and screws, the mechanics that will stop the release of radioactive material, the ongoing implosion. These workers are traveling into the midst of the danger: they are doing their jobs. There are no reports of looting, of rampant gunfire, or military police action that many of us wait for in the wake of any upheaval that threatens civil order. There are flashes of anger, of suspicion, of despair. But mostly there seems to be the grief-stricken solace of cleaning up, and rebuilding.
It seems to me that whatever happens in the world is useless without a story in which to reveal itself, even while I confront the fact that our stories – my own stories, no less – are flawed and deceitful. And yet. Stories are what we have, hinging our own memorized scripts to fit the world around us. To outgrow the stories we’ve told ourselves requires opening to new stories, requires listening, requires being willing to hear something new. I don’t have to be right about this. There are multitudes of stories within every one of us, stories that will go untold unless we find the hinge upon which to tell it. I listen for hinges now.
*I believe it was called “In the Time of Miracles” by a Polish author whose name I never knew how to pronounce and therefore didn’t remember, recognized by neither Amazon nor Abe booksellers. A white paperback, published in a series of translated books by a small but respectable press in the late 80s or early 90s. I search for it now like a long lost dog. Let me know if you’ve seen it.