By David Asia
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
The Speed of Darkness, 1968
We love to tell stories.
When we can’t tell them aloud, we tell them to ourselves, quietly, in our heads, stories welded together by repetition until the map we have created in our heads begins to breathe on its own.
When things don’t fit, we make them fit: smoothing their edges, diminishing a rogue detail here or there, embellishing another, until it slides seamlessly into place alongside the others. And we don’t stop in the middle. We tell each story through, time after time, to the same, satisfying end.
Some call this making sense of the world. Others consider it delusional. Some end their lives in order to finally come to the end of the narrative, while others flush their meds, risking sanction, in order to keep telling it. Some stories are of little consequence, others incinerate continents.
We are especially fond of telling stories about traumatic events, like a school shooting. Our need to make sense of an inherently senseless event like this is compulsive: the shooter (and when did 14-year-olds become shooters in our stories?) was bullied, abused at home, was mentally ill, on drugs, was mentally ill and on drugs, jilted by a girlfriend, culturally conflicted, et cetera, et cetera.
There are as many probable explanations of such terrible events as there are maps of the world. And each of them has the heft of sense.
But none of them explains anything. They are, instead, small, but continuing attempts to place periods at the end of the dissonant sentences which intrude on our otherwise congratulatory myth making.
When the evening is done, however, before we wander back into our gated, mental territories, we need to take a cleaning breath and acknowledge some rough and tumble truths:
None of us, in life, will ever stop telling ourselves stories.
None of us can ever pay nearly enough attention to one another.
And, the availability of guns makes the rage or despair roiling up in each of our stories much more lethal.
Don’t get me wrong. We have been far too oblivious to real time and virtual bullying in our institutional lives. We are far too tolerant of child abuse and completely blind to the family histories and sociologies which perpetuate it generation after generation. Our failure as a society to provide free mental health and substance abuse treatment on demand is wasteful, dangerous, and could be considered criminal if it weren’t so blatantly stupid. Each of us has the capacity to be self centered and cruel at some point(s) in our lives. And there is still a thick, mean streak in American discourse that feeds on blaming the victims for their own powerlessness and oppression.
Truth be told, we are not a civilization that strives to pay very close attention to these things, even after a headline grabs us by the neck and throttles the air out of our lungs. Well, maybe for a day or two …
Nor are we a people who strive to pay very close attention to one another. We think we do, of course (such beliefs are fundamental to any culture’s collective narrative). But our lives are too noisy, too full of surface clutter, and all in all, managed too comprehensively by forces over which we have chosen to surrender control.
And guns? Well, it may be that guns don’t kill people. But they certainly make every person’s anguish easily more lethal, not only to themselves, but also to the three or four of us hanging around the cafeteria at 12:17 p.m. on that particular day.
In this reality, there is little we can do about any of this, especially (and most distressingly) about guns — they have become one of the few remaining totemic objects in an increasingly secular and blurry world. For many of us, regardless of place, the more blurry the world, the more sacred the guns.
Wait a minute, you say. I thought we were supposed to resist trying to make sense of the senseless, and here you are trying to do that very thing …
But, regardless of how unhappy it makes you, or me, for that matter, the world is not flat. And neither I, nor the weight of all of the carefully fabricated denial in the universe, however artful, can make it so.
Some things, fortunately or not, just are.
David Asia lives in Twisp.