Thursday, July 3, 2008


But now Hollywood ain't callin' for me And it don't look like she's fallin' for me Them city girls and me... Red Rover, Red Rover Won't you send her on back over I think I know what drove her away --Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, "City Girls" I went on a date last night. It seemed a little weird, first date on a Tuesday and all, but it worked, I guess. I say this not to brag, as first dates don't seem to be my problem, it's the second ones that never seem to happen (case in point, there won't be a second date from last night). Although one I went on recently taught me just how much of a storyteller I really am. See, I realized that the whole thing was a good setup for a story (in and of itself a story for another day), but that the story itself worked much, much better if I never heard from her again. And, really, there was nothing wrong with her. She was actually pretty cool. But I knew which story worked better. Either way, I bring up my activities from yesterday because I'm now about three months away from the last time I talked to someone I once thought would matter a great deal in my future. I strongly suspect this trend will continue well in to the future. These things are completely unrelated, but while reading After Tamerlane (which I finished reading today at lunch. I'm now delving excitedly in to Robin Waterfield's Xenophon's Retreat) and The Measure of All Things, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of inevitability and how we incorporate it in to the story of ourselves and our world, often completely incorrectly. And, hey, since I believe that the personal story, the societal story, and the universal story are somewhat interchangeable, I can run comparisons like this. It makes life so much easier. I met Rita (not her real name. In today's episode of Accidental Historian I'm using names from Local H songs to replace real names) about two years ago. I was limping out of a faith shattering year at college at the time and trying to decide what to do. See, I'd been intending for years to finish my undergrad, go to Seminary and become a pastor. Suddenly, though, that idea seemed like it was something that wouldn't so much work. I decided to cast off from my normal patterns and routines and see if I could find the answers that had so far eluded me. Then, in short order, god sent a woman to help me see the light. I suddenly realized that everything I'd been through was just some sort of big test to make me break a bunch of preconceptions and bad habits and now everything was going to be grand. I geared up once again to do the whole Seminary thing and move forward with a stronger understanding of god than ever before. But as we all know, the story doesn't end the way I thought it was going to. I haven't spoken to Rita in three months, and when I'm honest (which I usually am with stuff like this. There's no sense in denying something once I'm aware of it) with myself I know that time period really should be seven or eight months or more. I'm most certainly not in Seminary right now. Moreover, I no longer call myself a Christian. Looking back with as unbiased a view as is possible (which is to say, I think I'm being unbiased, but it's my own life and my own memories I'm working with here, so that's just not possible), I think I know what the problem is. It's a question of inevitability. More accurately, it's a question of how past events collide with our present and our inherent need to find meaning and try to guess at the future. It's all about the narrative we tell ourselves and the way something happens and we say, "Aha, now I understand how that other thing fits," even if the only place where that other thing is connected to what is happening now is in our own minds. It's especially difficult in the case of someone like Rita. We spent nearly two years together in this weird pseudo-dating relationship thing. There were a lot of bad times and a lot of good times. Whenever I do storytelling related things, too, at some point I remember that I wouldn't even know about the world that I'm delving deeper in to every day were it not for her (although, like most things, the connection between me and storytelling because of her was a completely random and unexpected byproduct of other things, so there's danger in reading too much in to that statement). There was even a time when I thought I wouldn't be able to do it if she wasn't around in some capacity to offer support. Even after the idea that god had decided to put the two of us together had fallen by the wayside and left to rot, the thought of being unable to become a storyteller without her help pushed the idea of inevitability. I was wrong. About absolutely everything. Rita's gone, storytelling isn't and the future looks pretty good. So how did I go from Point A to Point B? It's an issue of the personal narrative and how it gets in the way of reality. There are two things that I believe all humans are. First, we're prone to want to find meaning in everything. Second, we're conservative. And when I say conservative, I mean that not in the political context. I consider myself fairly progressive, but there are still some things that I want to stay the same or go back to the way they once were. It's a natural function of living in the present while only being able to know what happened in the past and project what will happen in the future. The future is scary and unpredictable while the past, even if it sucked, is familiar, safe. I think that's why most of us tend to stay in bad relationships. Even if it's not fun and we spend our time wondering what it would be like to have a different set of arms holding us, different hair to run our fingers through, different lips to taste, we fear that someone new won't live up to expectations or will be difficult to get along with or, worse, not be willing to forgive us of those things that our current other half already knows and has learned to live with. Too, I think we worry that we'll never again be able to visit those beloved places that are haunted by the memory of "us" if it's just "me" or a different "us." We're locked in a constant struggle against the world around us. Most of the time the only way to fight back, or even to simply cope, is through the narrative structure of the story we tell ourselves. So we turn coincidence into "meant to be" and happenstance in to "everything happens for a reason"* even when there's no good reason to think so. In this way, ultimately, I believe we invent god and create the divine in our own image.** The narrative creates a sense of inevitability. But this narratival (I think I just invented a word) inevitability is fueled by an incorrect understanding of history, be it personal or corporate. See, I believe we're prone to look on past events and believe that because they did happen, that means that they had to happen. We look at past events and connect the dots, inserting out own sense of meaning in to those interconnections, then attempt to extrapolate our present and future according to a faulty memory of the past. I left for the date that I went on last night directly from work. So I took the clothes I was planning on wearing (yes, I plan ahead for such things. I know, it's weird. But I didn't want to wear my business casual office getup and I wasn't going home) to work with me and left them hanging on a hook in my cube all day. My boss stopped over at one point and asked what the deal was, so I said I had a date. She then asked if I was looking forward to it and I kind of shrugged and, by way of explanation, said, "Everything I do with regard to women turns to crap." She told me to be positive. Then, wonder of wonders, last night went decently enough, but it turned to crap, assuming we define "not crap" as "getting a second date." Which gets me thinking. I went in to my last two dates with momentum. In both cases she suggested it while I was the one being careful. In both cases there was a decent back and forth and I think that it went decently well enough and I found the girl rather likable, but the end result was the same. It turned to crap. I mean, they went pretty much exactly the same way. And, as far as I know, the only thing my dates had in common, beyond general human femaleness, is that they've both gone on dates with me and decided not to give it a second go. Now, I've got two options when evaluating this. I could say that there's some sort of cosmic significance and that these two dates were simply way points on the path to something great. And, in a way, I'd be right (theoretically). It's just that I'd be right about the end and not the beginning. Because, you see, it's possible that this was a bit of random happenstance, but it's also highly likely that the one connecting point between these two dates was the breaking point. In short, it's not her, it's me. This admission, I believe, is at the core of any argument from inevitability. We want to hear, "It's not you, it's me," when getting dumped even if both parties know very well that, "It's not you, it's me," really means, "It's you." We don't want the responsibility of failure, the implication that we need to change, to learn, to grow, to be better people. I want to be able to say that everything I do with women turns to crap because that means I don't have to say that I just totally suck at the whole dating thing. In the case of success, meanwhile, the argument from inevitability helps us to affirm our place in the universe as the chosen person or people. If I succeed because I got lucky or was in the right place at the right time, then I have to admit that I might not be as good as as I want everyone to think I am. But if I succeed because I'm destined to succeed, then I have prestige. The universe or god or lady luck has taken a personal interest in me and will continue to do so. It's also an addition to the personal mythos that creates a sphere of ever-expanding success and has as its end result the fairy tale "happily ever after..." It's a much nicer world to live in than the one where kind, gentle, loving people get cancer and die while mean people get rich. It's also much nicer than the world where I might have to admit that I blew a chance with a really cool girl and I'll never meet anybody better than her. The first bunch of times I heard The Waterboys "Long Way to the Light," I thought there was a sequence that went: I flew back to New York City Singin' the big city blues With the sound of Findhorn Bay Still clinging to my shoes I thought it was an absolutely awesome image. It evoked this idea that a place can carry such a resonance that you can carry its essence with you. Similarly, the first bunch of times I heard Idlewild's "American English" I thought there was a sequence that went: Then you contract the American dream You'll never look up once You've contracted American dreams I require you to stop at all costs This, too, I thought was an awesome lyric. The idea that the singer feels so passionately about it that he says imperatively, "You need to stop this no matter what." Then I realized that Mike Scott of The Waterboys got back to New York with the sand of Findhorn Bay clinging to his shoes and Roddy Woomble of Idlewild was saying, "Stop and look up." I still loved both songs, but they'd changed slightly. Now, no matter the fact that I still prefer my original interpretations, I can't hear either song without hearing the real lyrics. And, to be honest, I kind of resent that. I want the songs to be what I think they should be. I want to go back to that date that resulted in the story where the bad ending worked best and try again to make it not turn in to crap. I'd trade the better story for a second chance in a heartbeat. But I quite literally restructured my narrative. I added a factor of inevitability. It didn't work, everything I do with regards to women turns to crap. But at least I have a good story to tell. Funny how that works, isn't it? *I absolutely hate the phrase "everything happens for a reason," but mostly because it's technically correct and rarely ever used correctly by the people who tend to say it. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, but that's because everything that happens is caused by something that happened in the past. Most people mean, "It was supposed to happen because it's part of the universal order," however. But I'm pretty sure that this is just a tangent from my entire point... **This isn't an apology for atheism or even agnosticism. It's far from it, in fact. The observation that we make god in our own image is not new and I've heard it many times over the years. The idea of creating god in my own image no more works as an argument to negate the existence of god than the fact that I, on some level, created "Rita" in my own image to make her in to something that she wasn't. I wanted her to play a particular role in my life, so I built my personal narrative around her, sometimes in ways that lined up with who she was but other times not. That version of her died at some point over the last six months or so and I no longer see her that way, but she hasn't ceased to exist. If I'm capable of doing that with a flesh and blood human who I can hear and smell and touch, how much more can I create an image of the ineffable divine that doesn't match up with reality?


Nick Kiddle said...

I absolutely hate the phrase "everything happens for a reason," but mostly because it's technically correct and rarely ever used correctly by the people who tend to say it.

I have my own battles with the phrase, and I don't think it's even technically correct. That "a" implies that things only have one cause, whereas I find most things that happen have multiple causes.

Geds said...

Y'know, that point is what we in the business (what business, you ask? I dunno. Internet pedantry? Am I getting paid for this?) call a damn good point. I'm actually kind of shocked that I never thought of the phrase that way, especially since I just finished reading a 500+ page book for which that could pretty much be the thesis...

tilts_at_windmills said...

I think part of the attraction of inevitability is that it saves us from having to deal with the fact that who we are is contingent. What am I if not the sum of my experiences? And if I accept that those could just as easily have happened in some other way--that with a roll of the dice I'd have met different friends and lovers, gone down the path of a different belief system, pursued a different career--then I have to accept that I could just as easily be a different person now, one I wouldn't necessarily like or even recognize.

Geds said...


One of the things that I have to struggle with occasionally is the fact that in several, hopefully small, ways I know I contributed to feeding the very systems of Christianity I now fight against. I have to remind myself that I was simply doing my best to do what I thought was right at the time and I can't hold my subsequent experiences and realizations against that prior version of myself.

Also, and I think I touched on it here, the rejection of evolution functions as a part of that fear to admit we're a collection of contingent factors. In an evolutionary system we're simply a transitional stage that will eventually give way to the next evolution or be overcome by a different, more powerful and adaptable system. That can be a terrifying concept. It's much easier to say that we're the inevitable pinnacle of all creation and god wouldn't let us pass away.

Which, actually, was the message of the original War of the Worlds. The Martians were finally brought down by disease and it ended with a not at all veiled message about the wisdom of god in creating such things...

Fiat Lex said...

The song lyrics thing really caught my eye. My most frustrating experience with that was actually in a part of Tori Amos's "Father Lucifer"--she's got three or four vocal tracks all singing on top of each other. And I could've sworn the lyric went
God only promises no doubt
when in fact it was
got all my crosses loaded
--a completely different idea.

Is Rita someone I've met, perhaps me and D have dined with her and you at a Chinese restaurant once and played poker a few other times?

It does seem to me that it's really, really easy for a person to project their own narrative onto a second person. Especially if the second person is very subtle or occasionally inscrutable about what their own perspective might be. I do this a bit myself, even talking into consideration all the crazy talk. My idea of the logic of the story is (I like to imagine) just that difficult to explain. But a lot of people, girls especially, will react to dramatic elements in their personal narrative without being able to express the nature of the drama.

At a certain point you come up against one of two intractable barriers: communication and dynamism. Communication meaning that no two people can ever gain a complete understanding of one another's point of view. Dynamism meaning that no one can ever gain a completely explicable understanding of their own point of view--because every new idea we envision influences every old idea we previously held. Even if two people were to have one of those magic moments of true telepathy--which, I aver, DO happen from time to time--the contents of their shared being would sweep forward, never touching that precise state again.

If you don't like what a song turns out to be, you can always write your own. If you discover that you don't like the person you are, you can change yourself insofar as you can understand yourself. But when it comes to other people, if you like or dislike something about them, not only can you not change it, you can never be quite certain (at least, not for more than a moment) that whatever moved you is what it appears to be, or whether it has gone.

My opinion is that people get into feracious agruments, some spanning entire academic or theologic careers, in order to preserve a less chaotic vision of the universe. They want to live in a reality where this fundamental uncertainty can be evaded or reduced, at least in the afterlife if not right now. Frankly some days I'd like to live in a reality like that, too. If only this one didn't keep kicking my ass whenever I try...