Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Truth about Stories

Maligne Canyon
A friend recently recommended Thomas King’s, The Truth About Stories: a native narrative, to me and she was right; it’s a thought-provoking read. Too simplistically put, it’s an exploration of the influence of traditional narratives on the progress of our lives communally and individually. More specifically, it’s Thomas King’s personal experience of the clash of the white and aboriginal narratives. We all know the denouement, of course; we see its consequences every day.
But first, a word about “narrative.” Everyone inherits and learns a “story,” (although a better word would be “myth” used in its positive sense.)  The story is about life on earth, how it came to be, what it means to be a human being on the planet and where it is all headed. In some cultures, the foundational inheritance has been largely oral; in others, the story has been set to print and declared sacred as in the Koran and the Bible. To varying degrees, our lives are influenced—often unconsciously—by the story we inherit.
King points out, for instance, the harshness of the creation story in Christian/Jewish/Muslim theology as compared to aboriginal stories on life’s origins. How would Christians’ lives be different if in the story they inherited, God had sat down with Adam and Eve and negotiated a positive outcome instead of kicking them out of Eden and branding their offspring with the “born in sin” stigma? King muses.
Our inherited stories aren’t only religious, of course. Multi-millionaire Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den said on a recent show, “We get up in the morning to make money,” and that too is the acting out of a story. A quote from David Suzuki reveals a very different story: “The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.” ( For most of us, the story underlying our choices is complex, a combination of religious traditions, experiences of survival in the modern world, reading and media influences, etc.  In the case of Canada’s aboriginal people, boarding school and other government policies sought to beat the story out of them. Finding a new story that will bring back dignity, purpose and self-esteem has been a near-impossible task for those of their leadership who see how necessary that is.
We underestimate the power of the story by which we live. Thomas King writes: “. . . James puts the barrel of a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. And in the novel (referring to Louis Owens’ Porcupines and China Dolls) as in life, whether he lives or dies depends on which story he believes (118).” There are better and worse stories, there are people who have adopted stories that are false or that contain elements that are false. It’s crucial both on the personal and communal level that our stories be authentic and that they be faithfully transmitted. In 9/11, for instance, we see the collision of two cultures, both acting out a false story, as we also see in the economic collapse through which we’re presently trying to find our way. Good stories lead to contentment, companionship, well-being and plenty. Bad stories lead to conflict, exploitation and disappointment.
And then there’s that whole other issue of failing to act on a good story we’ve been given. A quote near the end of The Truth about Stories says it well:
And for the world I’ve helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all of this, it is doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different, for I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a friend, as a human being, than to have to live the story of making a sustained effort to help (166).
So what’s a good story to live? The gospels? The Koran? The political and economic stories: capitalism, communism, anarchy? The hedonistic ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ story? The way to judge the quality of the story in which we’re living may have been best summarized by Jesus when he said:  Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  (Matthew 7:16 - King James Version)” A good story produces good fruit; a bad story is a bush of thorns, a clump of thistles.


1 comment:

  1. Thomas King presented the book as a series of five lectures on CBC radio (the Massey Lectures)a few years ago. I had the good fortune of hearing a few of those lectures. I appreciate your summary and comments and would look forward to the opportunity of reading King's presentation in it's entirety some day.