“The Only Thing You’ve Got Is What You Can Sell”: Making Peace with the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite stories, not because it is a […]

CJ Green / 1.18.17

ebc0fa592f21e0030d071e6140e88f1dDeath of a Salesman is one of my favorite stories, not because it is a piece of great “litracha,” but because it is about a man to whom I can profoundly relate. For anyone who wasn’t subjected to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece in high school, the basics are: Willy Loman is a salesman harboring great expectations for his son, Biff. When grown-up Biff returns for a visit (“I’m mixed up very bad,” he says), Willy’s delusions about who Biff should be collide with who Biff really is. Willy nevertheless maintains a blind sort of optimism: “Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison, I think. Or B.F. Goodrich. One of them was deaf…I’ll put my money on Biff.” Willy tells stories about his son, and about himself, that affirm his rose-colored perspective even as he moves tragically closer to suicide.

Reading the play, I found myself relating not so much to Biff as to Willy, and I remember vividly the moment I realized why. My Greek English teacher with a larger-than-life coif of hair pointed out that while obviously Willy is a salesman, Miller never specifies what, exactly, he’s selling. In a way, his entire life is a sale. And what is a sale but a story, a narrative which convinces us that we need this product? My teacher turned to us and asked, “What are you selling?” In a period of my life which was characterized by college applications and resume padding—“Dear college, you need me”—I realized I was, too, a salesman. And even afterward, with carefully curated clothes and laptop stickers and books on my bookshelf, I have never ceased to be.

I couldn’t help but think of Willy Loman—and by extension myself—as I read Todd May’s recent piece, “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” in the New York Times. May reminds us that while our delusions may not be quite as dramatic as Willy’s, they exist. We tell stories about ourselves all the time. Maybe we try to express how “this one time” was funnier than it was; maybe we spruce up our job descriptions at parties. May writes: “We tell stories that make us seem adventurous, or funny, or strong. We tell stories that make our lives seem interesting. And we tell these stories not only to others, but also to ourselves.”

We tell stories to reconstruct the truth to suit our needs. We may conveniently paint ourselves as martyrs when we are anything but. We may conceive of ourselves as heroes, or villains, even when others might not see us that way.

I have come to call the results of this “the 1984 Effect” (another required reading reference…). In Orwell’s 1984, the government’s Ministry of Truth alters historical documents in order to manipulate the truth, or what is perceived as truth. With enough tampering, the citizens of Oceania begin believing the stories and forget what actually happened; we do this, too, globally and individually. We have little Ministries of Truth sorting files in our brains, shredding the documents we find most embarrassing. Take Willy Loman, for example. As consolation for his own failures, he tells himself that his son is an amazing football star who shows tons of promise, who will be a world-famous businessman; he tells himself this story so often that he believes it even when Biff tells him directly that it is not true.

32ad03c1e80c9f9c756215cd528c6a17The stories we tell have a strange power. I know someone who, as a teenager, snuck out of her house one night, and when her parents caught her, she told them, “Oh, we just went to 7-11.” After a deluge of questioning (her father was in the military), and insisting for years that she only drank Slurpees, she no longer remembers where she actually went and what she actually did that night. She told such a convincing lie about the Slurpees that she created in her mind a fake memory of that time she never went to 7-11: she remembers opening the door, feeling blinded by the fluorescent lights, gingerly gripping the handle of the Slurpee machine so as to avoid touching its sticky residue.

So as much as we like to rewrite our stories for others (à la Instagram, say), we also tend to be vulnerable enough to buy in. May continues:

The audience for these stories, of course, affect the stories we tell. If we’re trying to impress a date, we might tell a story that makes us seem interesting or witty or caring, whereas if we’re trying to justify a dubious act to someone who is judging us (or perhaps ourselves), we might tell a story that makes us out to be without other recourse in the situation. In the latter case, what we are doing is dissociating ourselves from a value we might be associated with and thus implicitly associated ourselves with a different one.

This is the realm of the law: when we find ourselves working to impress someone, we are already being judged, and we are trying to appease that judge. Conversely, in the realm of the gospel, when we know we are accepted fully, we have no reason not to tell it like it is. We are free to share those things about ourselves that we don’t really like, those things that we know are no-good.

If we reflect on the stories we tell about ourselves, both to others and to ourselves, we may well find out things about who we are that complicate the view we would prefer to be identified with…

With the proliferation of various cable news channels, the internet, niche marketing, clustering in communities of like-minded people, most of us live in echo chambers that reflect the righteousness of our lives back to us. We are reinforced to think of ourselves as embodying the right values, as living in ways that are at least justified, if not superior. Reflecting on the stories we tell about ourselves might reveal to us other aspects of who we are and what we value, aspects that would complicate the simple picture provided by our echo chamber.

Echo chamber: it’s a term we’ll likely hear more of as newsfeeds grow more personalized and Google searches more predictive. The Bible tells us, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray; each of us has turned to our own way” or, perhaps more appropriately, to our own newsfeeds. We settle into an echo chamber that sings the songs we like to hear, the songs of self-justification and righteousness; like Willy Loman, we prefer stories of greatness and goodness even as the bankruptcy of these assumptions is imminent.

But there is someone who tells a different story about us; it is a story much bigger, yet much simpler than the ones we tell about ourselves. You could Sparknotes your way through it and still hear. It is the story of a God who (absolutely) loves us, no matter what. It is the story of Jesus dying so that we might live. In Sally-Lloyd Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible, Jesus tells his disciples:

“This is how God will rescue the whole world. My life will break and God’s broken world will mend. My heart will tear apart—and your hearts will heal…I won’t be with you long,” he said. “You are going to be very sad. But God’s Helper will come. And then you’ll be filled up with a Forever Happiness that won’t ever leave. So don’t be afraid. You are my friends and I love you.”

It is the story of death and resurrection, of judgement and love, of the lost being found; the story of the old passing away, and the new taking its place. It is the story of the death of a salesman, and the raising of a free man. It is the story that tells us that our stories are none of our business, that our stories don’t belong to us, and that the real story is coming to us. It is an echo-chamber, to be sure, so that we may be always reminded of the love that was given for us.