// unreliable narratives

A few nights ago, I realised mid-conversation with a friend that I no longer believed what I was saying to her. We were talking about the masks that people put on, how many people hide and why they do it, and I was arguing strongly that everyone hides behind something. Scratch the surface and there’s always darkness, as a consequence of living in a world where sin is an issue. But as we talked and our conversation (and my argument) went down a familiar route, I noticed that I was on autopilot. I had conditioned myself to believe that things ran in a particular way, and it was easier to believe that in the end so I just ignored the other evidence.

I wanted to stop my friend at the time and apologise to her for being a fraud, but I couldn’t help thinking that would have just inadvertently proved my point, so I stayed silent instead. It did get me thinking, though. A lot of the time cynicism is just a pose, a posture. People adopt it for the same reasons as they do anything else – emotional reasons, or social ones, or as a coping mechanism, or whatever. I was that way for a reason, I suspect because I was concerned that if I was really honest with people then they would walk away from me, and I never wanted that to happen.

But things have changed lately.

If you’ve ever spent any time hanging around with literature students talking about books, they’ll probably have talked to you about unreliable narrators at some point – speakers whose perspective on events is either skewed or just incomplete. You have this duality in what you’re reading and so are forced to come to different conclusions about what has actually occurred. It happens in Wuthering Heights and in The Turn of the Screw and in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, among many others.

You know there’s a truth about what’s being described to you, but it’s not immediately obvious what that truth is from what is being presented in front of you.

So it was mid-conversation with my friend that I realised, whilst I was telling her one story, my life was telling another entirely. I have been an unreliable narrator. I have told this story of a life that is shot through with pessimism, doubt and confusion, but for the most part, I am no longer living that life anymore.

The strangest realisation about life post-internship is that I now sincerely believe some of those things that God says are true about me (there is work to be done on others, but then that’s always the case). The things that I always struggled to believe, such as that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, that we are sons of God and that peace is possible and that God is genuinely interested both in speaking to us and in where our lives are headed, I have now ended up living out by instinct. Maybe that’s just because I’ve been effectively brainwashed, but for some reason my old thought patterns seem hollow these days, in themselves a mask. It’s easy to slip back into them, sure – old habits die hard, after all – but they just don’t ring true any more.

That didn’t happen immediately and it certainly didn’t happen as I expected it to – all those sessions with pastors telling me that I had to “take every thought captive” and to speak truth over myself even when I started to doubt seemed like so much hard work at the time that I mostly gave up on them, thinking they were wrong and that nothing would ever change. But when the realisation came, it came out of the blue, seeping slowly in until with blinding clarity I realised it; I am not who I used to be. The place of doubt, cynicism and tortured self-analysis is no longer what I live out of.

I am, in all truth, a new creation.

The modernists talked about the decentred self and the first post-modernists about the multi-centred self, about how we are a million different people from moment to moment, depending on context and social factors. I love having been able to engage with that, but in truth, I don’t need it anymore. It’s a great framework on which to hang the search for an identity, but if you have already found out who you are, then why keep questioning it? That only seems to suggest that you’re not as happy as you make out.

I am happy, disconcertingly. For the first time in a long, long time I can say that uncritically, without needing to clarify it or point out the things that could be better in my life. Life is not as comfortable as maybe it could be, but that no longer matters, because at the end of all of this I truly believe that God is in control. And ultimately, that means that the narrative has to change, if it’s to be a true representation of this life – because it just doesn’t fit the truth these days.

After years of thinking that only the life of doubt, confusion and analysis is any kind of real life, I am coming to realise recently that it too is a lie. It’s a pose, and more to the point, I’m pretty sure that it’s one that I just don’t really believe in anymore.

Hallelujah!

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  1. Incidentally, for a thought-provoking (if controversial) reflection on this idea courtesy of Peter Rollins, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCSAGRldlKM

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