The Stories We Tell (And Some Thoughts on Why)

Joan Didion rather famously began her essay The White Album with the line We tell ourselves stories in order to live. 

Now, there are about a thousand ways to parse this sentence, and it could be said that this is the brilliance of Didion’s writing. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves enable life, offer hope or the possibility of freedom, allow us to more fully understand our own motivations and the motivations of others. These, perhaps, are the stories Didion spoke of when she wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. These, perhaps, are the stories that engendering living. But sometimes the stories we tell destroy us or others, and there’s not always an easy way of knowing when, or how, or which.

When  I was thirteen I fell in love, or something like it.

The object of my affection was an employee of the summer camp I attended as a child, a man ten years my senior, ultimately charged with my care. Now, fast-forward two decades, and he could reasonably be my husband (age-wise); then, of course, owing to our age gap, any relationship might have sent the charming young British expatriate to prison.

But I loved him, you understand. And in my infinite wisdom, I sought to pursue him, to tell him, to put the moves on. But I recognized, with all the wit and reason of an average eighth grader, that no good could come of such gestures–not at that moment. If I wanted to put the moves on successfully, I knew: I had to wait. Of course, it’s also clear, in retrospect, that to the extent that I ever found moves, I certainly had none in junior high school. Breasts, yes. Moves, no. But I digress.

Back to love. I was certain of my affection, and blissful in the delusion that I would have to wait. I, too, believed that if I made my love clear in the present moment, I’d not  only compromise his reputation and my own modesty, I’d ruin our chances. In the narrative I constructed, my love object was a decent human being, honorable and valorous–not one to make off with presumably impressionable peri-adolescent girls.

So certain I was in my affection, so confident I was that our love would one day rise, that I constructed a narrative around the necessity of waiting.

I’m 13, he’s 22, I reasoned. Now, it’s impossible.

With fierce resignation, I accepted my temporary fate.

But  in just five years, I consoled myself, I’ll be 18, he’ll be 27, and then I’ll tell him.

18 came, and and 18 went, and I didn’t tell him. I’m sure I had some terrible boyfriend at the time, keeping me, at least temporarily, from my one true love. I maintained the narrative arc, in some back corner of my mind, but kept pushing back our ages, so committed I was to keeping hope alive. My first serious boyfriend, perhaps the only boyfriend who fully and foolishly loved and was in love with me, was another 22 year old British boy, who, in reflection, was a near clone of the original.

In reflection I can see that I loved my 13 year old love for the very qualities I inferred about–and conferred upon–him: he was kind, funny, intelligent, and possessed of appropriate boundaries. (Read: he was doing his job and had not the slightest shred of romantic interest in me, to my everlasting regret).

Nevertheless, I knew it would work all out, one day. For years I clung to this story. Years. Hilarious, in retrospect, and slightly sad (there’s still time!). And with retrospective clarity, I think that the future I imagined with this man was rooted in the desire for someone to listen to me and take me seriously, to pay attention and reflect back that I was there, to approach me with respect and affirmation and recognition of my value, experiences supremely lacking in my home life.

He did that, and he still does (sorry to bury the lede, we’re friends). The love was a fabrication, crafted in the belief that it might save me, but the possibilities it elicited were very real. I took what was given and spun it into something more. It was an illusion, but one that buoyed me, and carried me, eventually, to safer shores. But as it carried me, it limited me, tethered me to a figment, constricted my vision of what might have been. This was the story I told myself. Perhaps this is what Didion meant, so many years ago, when she wrote we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

Anyway, even now, I consider the measured judgment of my 13 year old self and think you could have done worse, Adina. Edit: You’ve done far worse, but save that for another time. Those decisions, too, were rendered to live. Now, the line between what saves us and what destroys us is thinner than we imagine; sometimes, there is no line. But storytelling is a major part of what makes us human. Stories enable us to make sense of our social worlds, to heal wounds and take risks, to love and to grieve. The stories we tell ourselves provide understanding, but the stories we tell one another represent a profound source of connection. The intersection is where meaning resides. So as much as we need the stories we tell ourselves, we need other people’s stories. This, I think, is how we survive.