The Loneliest Question: Knowing Ourselves from the Stories We Tell

Another reflection–this time on the illusive nature of identity and memory–from the pen of Charlotte […]

Mockingbird / 7.3.13

Another reflection–this time on the illusive nature of identity and memory–from the pen of Charlotte Hornsby.

Sarah Polley3

Sarah’s dad says it best. Beaming his blue eyes past the camera, he squints and asks, “How is it we talk and talk without conveying somehow what we’re really like?” This conundrum lies at the heart of Stories We Tell, the documentary Sarah Polley shaped out of hours of interviews with all the key players in her mother’s life, most notably her biological father and the man she discovered wasn’t her biological father. Through the stories of her mother’s marriage, career and secret affair, a grown-up Sarah tries to reconstruct the multi-faceted mum (she’s half-British) she had a dim sense of as a child and what lead this woman to cheat on her father. Yet while everyone agrees on tape to Diane’s outward traits: her contagious sense of fun, boundless energy and a laugh so large it had a gravitational pull, they could only imagine at the sadness she carried, the cavity she felt she had to fill with a new love.

As people trail off about what her mother hid, what her mother thought and craved and feared, Sarah reflects that we can’t resurrect someone through our stories of them. In saying “she was like this” we risk turning her into a fiction, and feed the lie that Diane or any of us are a recipe of traits that if mixed in the proper order will rise and cool into a consistent personality. Given the gaps between stories, the discrepancies between the Diane her sister knew and the Diane her DNA-dad knew, Sarah wonders if any of us are truly knowable.

This is the loneliest question. I know I’ve asked it before and I’ve certainly seen it echoed by some of my favorite writers. In his play “The Cocktail Party”, T.S. Eliot’s Celia confides to her doctor, “It isn’t that I want to be alone, but that everyone’s alone—or so it seems to me. They make noises and think they are talking to each other; they make faces and think they understand each other. And I’m sure that they don’t. Is that a delusion?” “Being close,” Nicole Krauss writes, “as close as you can get to another person only makes clear that impassable distance between you.”

Diane Polley with hula hoopTo consider that you cannot translate your inscrutable hardwiring, your peculiar alloy of experience, desires, and doubts to the person at the other end of the line (a friend, a spouse, a therapist) can be paralyzing. At worst, this line of thinking leads to a staring-at-the-bedroom-ceiling solipsism. At best (?) it leads to the kind of Tom Sawyer thought experiment, where you marvel at what people would say about you at your funeral or, in Diane Polley’s case, in your documentary. And while I’ve definitely indulged in imaginary posthumous compliments (“She was such a diligent writer!”) I know that such a testimony wouldn’t really be accurate. For every absolute statement (“She was incredibly social!”) would have to be dismantled with the counterargument (“…but then so sullen!”) And who would be there to explain that I actually take irresponsibly long Youtube/snacking breaks between paragraphs?

What a strange frustration it is that the qualities we may like about ourselves are also impossibly hard to hold onto. I can no more maintain a social and carefree nature than Sarah’s mom could keep up the role of the effusive hostess. We get exhausted, grumpy, hungry, distracted by someone else we want to please. A host of variables cloud our decisions and behavior such that we often surprise ourselves by what we do. As E.M. Forester so awesomely put it, “How can I tell what I think ‘til I see what I say?”

Thankfully this mystery of who we are and aren’t isn’t ours to solve. A friend of my dad’s recently said he finds his identity in gratitude. I loved that. It’s radically foreign to the way we describe ourselves and each other. A grateful person has been taken away from their own inconsistencies and brought to the constant nature of something outside themselves. It reminds me of something Aldous Huxley said that continues to thoroughly rock me. Take it away, Aldous:

Total awareness, then, reveals the following facts: that I am profoundly ignorant, that I am impotent to the point of helplessness and that the most valuable elements in my personality are unknown qualities existing ‘out there’, as mental objects more or less completely independent of my control. The discovery may seem at first rather humiliating and even depressing. But if I whole-heartedly accept them, the facts become a source of peace, a reason for serenity and cheerfulness. I am ignorant and impotent and yet, somehow or other, here I am—unhappy, no doubt, profoundly dissatisfied, but alive and kicking. In spite of everything, I survive, I get by, sometimes I even get on. From these two sets of facts—my survival on the one hand and my ignorance and impotence on the other—I can only infer that the not-I which looks after my body and gives me my best ideas, must be amazingly intelligent, knowledgeable and strong…As a self-centered ego, I do my best to interfere with the beneficent workings of this not-I. But in spite of my likes and dislikes, in spite of my malice, my infatuations, my gnawing anxieties, in spite of my over-valuation of words, in spite of my self-stultifying insistence on living, not in present reality, but in memory and anticipation, this not-I, with whom I am associated, sustains me, preserves me, gives me a long succession of second chances.