Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is, it is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story? … You want words that reflect reality? ‘Yes.’ Words that do not contradict reality. ‘Exactly.’ …
I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you, that will confirm what you already know, that won’t make you see higher, or further, or differently. You want a flat story, an immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.
Excerpt from The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
I just finished listening to the audio book, The Life of Pi. In it, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel tells his remarkable survival story. Everyone has a survival story. In fact, everyone tells themselves a story in order to survive. Our story helps us cope. It is a way of interpreting the events of our lives, of making sense of those events, ourselves, and the people around us. It’s kind of like another way of seeing something I’ve always known was true: people interpret life’s events, others’ words, even their own actions through a belief system I call a grid. Grids are the human way of understanding the world, and we all have one – one major worldview that helps us make sense of our lives.
We begin to construct our grids at a very young age using a combination of what we are taught and how we react to the world as a result of our own individual personalities. We live in a broken, messed up world and have to learn quickly how to cope. Perhaps the person who takes his own life does so because he or she no longer possesses the tools to interpret his life in a way that makes sense.
This happened to a dear relative of mine a few years ago. He completely lost touch with reality for a couple of years. Those around him who were trying to help had many different speculations as to what was happening: a chemical imbalance in the brain, schizophrenia, mis-prescribed medications, and others. I think he just lost his ability to explain the world around him and the world inside him.
That’s the other piece I took from the book: there’s an entire universe inside each of us. Dreams, ideas, and inventions, thoughts we cannot control, habits we cannot break, feelings we cannot find a cause or an outlet for, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Despite our desire for connection, our propensity for community, we are still alone in the end. Who can begin to understand my story? So much chaos whirling around inside these little heads of ours. Add to that our attempts to understand the words, actions, and emotions of others and you have the definition of OVERWHELMED.
I think that’s why we compartmentalize. Our grid serves as a way to sort through the various aspects of our world into separate compartments that we find manageable. Probably the number one way we in the West understand the world around us is dualistically. The Life of Pi ‘preached’ against dualism more than any of other philosophy. From Piscine’s determination to find God through three contradictory religions (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam), to his almost symbiotic relationship with a deadly Bengal tiger aboard a lifeboat, Yann Martel said over and over again in a hundred different ways that dualism is a poor way to deal with life’s complications. He makes it clear that even lost at sea in a lifeboat he shared with Richard Parker, there are many ways to look at life’s circumstances – not everything can be interpreted as either black or white.
In the end, we all believe the story we tell ourselves is the ‘truth’, factual, the real thing, the only story. Yann Martel makes a strong case for the question of whether or not any of us know the ‘real’ story (maybe we can’t know it), and he asks that we take note when someone we come into contact with has a story which contradicts ours. How often do we sacrifice relationship and growth in our determination to make our story ‘right’? We stubbornly hang on to our own construct – an illusion of safety – often at the expense of those around us. Maybe the problem isn’t that we believe the ‘wrong’ story, maybe it’s just that we are unwilling to truly hear anyone else’s. What if, in the end, everyone’s story is ‘wrong’ and the real point of life was learning to love in spite of it all?
2000 years ago a group of Pharisees resorted to murder to protect the story they told themselves. Throughout the centuries the church has continued to do this as if more violence is the solution to violence. Jesus showed us another way. He told a different story to the violence we use to understand and control our world. I wonder to what lengths I would go in order to protect the story that makes sense of my life? To what extent have I sacrificed relationship in my determination to be ‘right’?
Maybe this is exactly why Jesus told parables. Parables, unlike any other story, can be interpreted in so many different ways. Filled with multiple applications, they are designed to both enlighten and confuse. Maybe Jesus’ very use of the parable is proof that knowing the ‘right’ story was never the point. And maybe, just maybe, the Word of Life is the only one able to ‘correctly’ interpret each of our stories. That’s what I believe ‘judgment day’ will be all about: helping me understand my story.
In the meantime, I want to learn to listen to other peoples’ stories, fully aware that I hear through my own grid, somehow finding a way to love in spite of my misunderstanding and contradictory construct. Jesus didn’t promise that people would know Him by how right we are; He promised people would recognize Him by how well we love one another. In the end, only grace signifies, and love really will win.