…of course we don’t have an identifiable self, not something we can point to and say: ‘Oh, look, that’s me.’ We can stare at the mirror in the bathroom, or we can undress in front of the wardrobe and declare: ‘This what I am,’ but what we are seeing is just the package really. You is what goes on, on the inside. And to be honest, none of us really knows what’s going on inside. In fact, it’s a bit of an ungodly mess, like a bedroom that’s never been tidied or a garden after a long winter. At best we are gardeners constantly weeding and cleaning and hiding corners we are ashamed of, or parents of an unruly teenager who treats us like slaves. We spend most of our time looking inside ourselves and trying to sort out the disorder.
I’d like to contradict myself, a bit. We are, in fact, on the outside but in the bit beyond our skins – otherwise known as the world. We are on the outside, inside. It is a particularly clever trick we do by creating narratives about ourselves and our lives. We are the authors of our own stories.
The problem is, as we launch our stories out into the world they encounter other stories in the narratives of our friends, families, communities, and religions. What if we are a story nobody likes? What if we are a story nobody wants because it’s so different from what everyone expects? What we do is constantly edit our lives so that it fits in with what others expect. In some ways this is not a bad thing as it filters out behaviours that are harmful. But the expectations of others are often far more restrictive than they need to be.
What if we stopped worrying about what the world thinks of our personal narratives? As a novelist I can expect, when I complete a novel, to have it examined by a team of editors to help me fine tune my work. They’ll not just be looking for errors in grammar, they’ll be looking for inconsistencies, for characters that don’t seem convincing. They’ll also be looking to see how entertaining it is, and where it fits into the vast body of literature that already exists. Sound familiar?
Our friends and family, work colleagues and fellow shoppers on the high street are all the editors of our lives – if we let them. We are the editors of the stories of others. What we should really be are mirrors helping to reflect back to each other, what we actually are.