‘I thought it was Mum who had the idea for the bus, not Dad,’ said my brother, in response to my post here last week about our teenage hideout. It’s a common enough exchange between siblings, and one that surely becomes more common the further everyone gets from the events in question.
I asked my mother in her care home. ‘Yes, it was my idea,’ she said brightly. But although her long-term memory is still better than her short-term memory, even that is becoming less reliable now; and, perhaps uncharitably, I was more inclined to trust my brother’s recall than hers.
Now, although in some part of my mind I still cling to the notion that my father had the idea for the bus and my mother did the subsequent legwork to acquire it, I have to be open to the possibility that that wasn’t the case. But does it really matter? I’m certainly not going to fall out with my brother over it and nothing material is going to change now whichever version might be ‘right’. And yet, and yet…
If we are the sum of our stories at any given moment, then the integrity of those stories matters. To use an architectural analogy, we may each be a complete building, but it’s the quality of the individual bricks that keeps us standing. So what we need to be concerned with is the personal truth of those stories that make us who we are. A story that we know to be dubious or untrue is, in effect, a defective brick.
That doesn’t, however, mean that one can’t replace the bricks: a defective one with a sound one, or one sound one with another. So even though my brother’s version of the story might be demonstrated to be the factually correct one, my building would remain standing, though its character might have been subtly, minutely altered. I would have conceded that on that particular occasion my father hadn’t shown the imaginative flair I thought he had; and in the broader story that might leave me looking for other evidence that he was not an unimaginative man.
Where it becomes still more interesting, though, is where that factual evidence is absent (as it is in the case of the bus), and I remain unconvinced by my brother’s assertion, as he does by mine. Then there are two apparently conflicting truths. Yet part of my truth is that he believes his, so in one way I’m able to accommodate both versions of the story with no trouble; and since there’s nothing contentious in the differences, I choose to do so. Thus two bricks take the place of one and the building itself becomes bigger.
This has become a powerful theme in our The Stories We Tell workshops: the idea that rather than there having to be either/or versions of the personal stories we carry with us, there can be and/and versions. So if, to take an extreme and hypothetical example, I discover when I’m forty years old that the person I thought was my father isn’t, the new version of the story doesn’t invalidate the old one. The old one has been my personal truth for forty years. It has shaped the person I’ve become and can’t simply be swept away by new information. So now there’s a second version of the story that sits alongside the first; and one might say that I am the richer for being in possession of both.
I think back to the story I told here a couple of weeks ago of the person I met on the train who had been on one of our workshops, and who had found it so liberating to realise that there was a good version of a particular period of her life, as well as a bad version. The revelation for her was that she could live with both, and that is the wonder of stories: most simply represent the richness and potential of a truth, rather than the cold, hard stricture of the truth.
There are still places available on Part One of The Stories We Tell in four weeks’ time: 14th and 15th March. More information here.