Humans are storytelling creatures, and our favourite subject is ourselves. We tell stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we aspire to be going. For many, the process of growing up is the process of changing those aspirational stories from wanting world peace, to wanting a nice kitchen. Thus far I have singularly failed to grow up, and am doing my best to keep it that way.
We know each other to a large degree through our stories. It’s one thing when you live amongst the people you grew up with, all holding the same myths in common, identities interlocking, but quite another meeting strangers. We go off to university and other places to reinvent ourselves. When I changed town, I changed name. As a child, I had a name I hated, when I moved to a place no one knew me, I was free to offer any name I liked, and I did. Having come back to the place I grew up, that old, unwanted me hangs around like a ghost. Sometimes it is simpler to answer to the old name and not tell the tales of change.
Much reinvention is harmless, some of it is actually productive. A clean slate to experiment with ideas of self can be a good place to find out who you are, free from all the assumptions that chained you as you grew. Live your life out in the same place, and those stories of youthful error can become your defining features, whether you want them or not. Then there’s that other kind of reinvention. The sort that doesn’t mention time spent in prison, much less the reason for it. The sort that invents prestige and experience in order to impress. Offering the fantasy of who we wanted to be, and not the reality.
I’ve been through a few of these, and the mind bending process of having to unpick the threads of my own life from the vast tangles of other people’s fantasy webs. The trouble is that one little lie is seldom enough, they need extra details to make the story plausible. Characters are added in. Friends, lovers, events, and once those stories tangle into other people’s lives, it gets complicated.
I think about the man who told his family he had an agricultural accident, leaving him scarred for life, but who told his friends he was injured whilst fighting as a mercenary. Maybe neither version is true. That one didn’t turn out to be terribly important, because no one was counting on his soldiering expertise. It could have been a very different story if we were.
Now here we all are living our lives in public, where the guff that a teenage girl says can come back and cost her a lucrative job. These days you can’t just move town, you’ll have to start a whole new online identity if you want to step away from the past. The past, I have noticed, has a knack of coming back, and if it doesn’t fit with the story you tell, that can get messy. The ex girlfriend who isn’t ex at all, the child you didn’t admit to having, the friends and enemies historical who it turns out have no desire to be written out of the story.
We invent ourselves all the time, in every expression of self from conversations with friends and colleagues to the snippets of life we put up in public places. I think the internet may have made some of us more self-conscious in our story making. It also makes it easier to spin incredible webs of lies and deceit. Invent whole identities. I’ve seen friends burned by attractions to works of fiction in online dating. I’ve met people who were so convinced by their own stories that they had no awareness of how they might be perceived from the outside.
It’s no good flashing the words around if there’s nothing to back them up. Of course we can invent and reinvent ourselves, that can be a good part of the learning and growing process. Everyone should have the scope to change, but if we don’t live out that ‘once upon a time’ narrative, there are always going to be consequences. The bigger the story, the harder it is to tell what it might be going to do to us.
That’s my story, anyway.