What’s your story, morning glory?

Everything is a story, including the person you believe you are

Ryan McGuire of Bells Design on Gratisography
Ryan McGuire of Bells Design on Gratisography

It is Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, who says, “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.” The point he was making is that we are constantly changing as a result of a myriad of experiences that impact upon our personality in any given moment. As human beings, however, we are averse to change and freeze our identity to create a stable reference of who we are.

If you were to ask me who I am, depending on the time, my mood and what I think you might know about me, I will tell you a story. It might be about what I doing right now, where I come from, what I might have accomplished… Whatever it is, it will be a story. I would not need to think too much about the story/stories because I have told it many times to different people. Even if I were to just simply say my name, the rest of the story will play itself out in my head because I have made enough repetitions in the past; I have repeated them over and over so many times. We make a mantra with the stories that we hold.

Our entire lives, from when we are kids, we are surrounded by stories. You could say that stories pervade everything. Our very own lives, how we see others, how we see our communities, our nation, the world, are all constructed in story.

Starting the South African story with Jan van Riebeek and the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in 1652 is a choice we make when we recount the history of our nation. But even if we were to choose to start further back than the arrival of colonialism, or decide to include areas previously excluded, we must realise that the narrative of the nation is a construction. We make choices in how we frame a country or a people.

In a sense, we are also trapped within the stories we tell and retell. For example, I maybe a mess today because perhaps my father would beat me. Perhaps, he was a harsh man, he never acknowledged me, always called me a loser. And as a result I am a bad father to my kids, or a bad husband, or unreliable, or whatever… Through the stories we hold to our chests, we limit our own greatness or justify our own arrogance or our own racism. We say things like, “I am always a stickler for detail, I am fussy, I don’t suffer fools…” or “Women are always bad drivers”, “Blacks have no idea how to run a country which is why Africa is in a mess…” These are stories we invented partly based on limited experience of reality and partly based on very limited perception.

Our entire lives, from when we are kids, we are surrounded by stories. You could say that stories pervade everything. Our very own lives, how we see others, how we see our communities, our nation, the world, are all constructed in story.

It is like driving on the highway and a car swerves right in front of you. You honk your horn to vent your anger. You take a quick glance at the make of the car or maybe the number plate or the gender or race and we make up a story to explain the other driver’s lack of manners. We have no idea what the actual reason was for that driver’s behaviour and may never know. But we are going to go home and repeat that story to whoever cares to listen including our one-sided analysis.

There is this story of a guy who could not control his gossiping tongue and went to see a sage for guidance. He was instructed to collect feathers and release it on windy day from the minaret overlooking the city. When he returned to declare success, the sage said to him, “Now go and collect those feathers once more.” “But this is impossible,” said the man, “they are now so widely spread!” “Precisely!” said the sage.

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