More Reflections on Image and Story

We have spoken previously of story, both in terms of our own story and the stories to which we are exposed from childhood on, whether from family, school, culture, nation, or wider forms of literature. We also added that our own lives follow initially a script and self-image we have inherited. Only gradually do we become aware of that image and script, and are able either to re-affirm it as truly our own or to change it if it is untrue to our deepest self.

What is really crucial is to have an understanding of ourselves and a script that does help us to see ourselves and life truthfully and in depth, and to live out our personal, relational, and societal life accordingly. We need images and stories that are not superficial, naive, warped or destructive, but that take into account all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures.

We need a vision of life (a script, story) that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys, to survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and to build our world. And while taking into account all this complexity, that vision needs to affirm, as the basis of all else, our own sacred worth and the sacredness of all else (even when conflict and opposition are involved).

A point to add here is that the deepest truths about life are best, and even only, expressed in images, symbols, and stories. The truth of a story concerns not so much the facts of the story–whether or not it actually happened. It concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means; the picture of self and nature and history and the transcendent that comes through the story. Scholar, John Dominc Crossan expresses the thought bluntly. “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

A good example is the verse by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” He is apparently not talking about a specific physical place, but more of a way in which we can be present to one another. Instead of asking where is that place “out there,” we might inquire where is that place “in there.” What place within us goes beyond judging one another to trying to encounter someone in their home place, in their true self, behind and deeper than their or our thoughts, feelings, wounds, prejudices, and all else. Occasionally, if we are open, we may sense that inner place in another by a word or a glance or a simple gesture.

A good understanding of our inner world emerged once in a conversation with my son at the age of seven. He spoke of the world inside us in terms of different towns. He spoke of happy town and excitement town and the like, with examples for each. I asked him if there was anything further, and he said that way, way at the back was love town. I suggested to him that as long as we know that there is a love town we will be alright even if we cannot always be there, but are for a time in lonely town or angry town.

In this light, when we wish to embody in words the deepest things in our life, we tend to use images rather than plain matter-of-fact statements, because images say more and they say it better. When the poet, Robert Frost, exclaims, “I took the road less travelled by and that has made all the difference,” he is contrasting approaches to life rather than comparing highways. In the Shakespearean play, King Lear struggles to express the immense pain that his own folly and the treachery of his two oldest daughters have brought him, before spending his last days peacefully with his beloved youngest daughter. He does not simply say that he is hurting, that he has undergone a traumatic experience, or that he needs to seek psychological counselling. He proclaims: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears do scald like molten lead.” Once again, this is a vivid expression of the suffering that can afflict a human life and can expand our own understanding.

The story of Echo in Greek mythology tells of a young woman whose punishment is that she can only repeat what she hears. On one level it is an imaginative reflection on the experience of an echo in which a sound comes back to us until it gradually fades away. At a deeper level, the story suggests that we must find our own voice from within, beyond merely echoing what we hear from without. To do so is to make our own contribution to life. Not to do so is to fade away and to die within. In the words of Thomas Merton, contemplative writer, if we do not speak from our true self discovered in solitude, our speech will merely secrete clichés.

The story, familiar to many, of the Prodigal Son is not merely factual information about a lost young man. It suggests rather that even if we sever basic bonds, throw away our gifts, lose our way, and destroy much of the life that is within us, it is still not too late. We may begin at least to glimpse something deeper within us. And another caring person may recall us to our deepest self, beneath all wounds. In the face of the sometimes daunting experience of mistakes in life, the story calls us to remember that our sacred worth is deeper than and not destroyed by any brokenness and wrongness.

In effect, to understand ourselves, one another, and life’s meaning, we need the help of images and stories that affirm a deeper underlying worth which includes an awareness of our shadow self. I recall after reading a number of novels of Margaret Laurence that all her character are flawed, but that she likes them.

May you all find an image of yourself, your core self and your whole self, and a script to live by, one that allows for the shadows that fall across your life, yet affirms your underlying sacredness.

Norman King, April 5, 2021