Sometimes – oftentimes – when something terrible happens, I don’t even know how to talk about it. Sometimes there’s nothing to say that would add to the conversation or dry up any tears. Sometimes I try not to think about the truly horrible things at all because there is no narrative that will make sense of a broken world or broken people.
But we’ve already begun telling stories: Maybe the act was symbolic. Maybe his parents knew he was mentally unstable and did nothing to help him.
I’m reminded of what Tim O’Brien says about war stories:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”
I understand, of course, that the man who opened fire on theater-goers in Colorado is not a soldier in the midst of war. But I think that narrative in general functions powerfully to wrap up and make sense of things that don’t make sense at all. Once we can justify his behavior, we can point fingers at whoever let him go unchecked for so long. We can turn away from tragedy. We can turn to anger and self righteousness and indignation. Once we know the story, edited and tied up with a string, we can move on from collective grief and get on with our lives.
Sometimes there isn’t an answer. Sometimes the narratives we construct are lies we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night.
(I understand that it isn’t feasible to quit telling stories, to altogether quit constructing narratives. They’re part of human nature, and they bring joy and closure to our lives. We need them to look back and move forward. But when we tell stories, we need to be clear about the implications, always erring on the side of honesty even if our narrative becomes a bit muddied. When millions of individuals and thousands of cultures are telling their own narratives, there is going to be confusion – there is going to be inconsistency and overlap. When we tell “true” stories, we have to do our best to convey all information, even when it’s hard. We also have to understand that “sense” is a construct. Life is not obligated to make sense.)