Story and Identity: Moving Beyond the Self

[The following is the full script of the TEDx talk I gave on October 6, 2015. I removed a couple of sections on-the-fly during the live event for better flow and to wrap up more quickly.]

During my second year as a teacher of middle-school, I had a horribly difficult class just after lunch, full of students who struggled to read and hated the state-adopted textbook. “N’ombre, sir,” they would complain as I urged them to read tough, literary short stories with me. “This is boring! It makes no sense.”

Frustrated, I thought long and hard about what had made me love reading. I remembered the tales I had heard as a child at the knees of my Grandmother Garza, on my uncle’s ranch, in my aunts’ kitchens. In a sort of epiphany, I saw how my love of legends had led me to books at an early age.

The next day, I dimmed the lights and rolled my desk chair to the center of the room. “Listen, young friends,” I began, “to the tale of la Mano Pachona.” They were stunned and silent, hanging on every word as I narrated the gruesome deeds of that disembodied, hairy demon hand that seeks out rebellious children and punishes them. The students couldn’t believe their ears. They were startled to learn of my partly Mexican heritage, to discover I had heard the same stories they had from abuelos and tíos.

Something changed for us that day. Where there had been conflict and misunderstanding, there was a shared identity. I had proven myself part of a group that included them, no longer as just the teacher, but the storyteller, the mantle slipping from my grandmother’s shoulders to drape across my own.

I began to craft written versions of the legends, teaching my students to do the same, to imbed their family lore into specific contexts and make them viable literary texts. In the process, I learned more than I could have ever imagined about the role of story in the development of individual, community and global identity.

What was it that made each of us in that classroom a distinct person? Psychologists and philosophers have increasingly understood personality to be a sort of narrative construct the mind establishes to navigate existence. Adriana Cavarero calls this our desire for a narratable life, the hope that a design can be perceived by others in the long string of events through which we move down the years. At the heart of this design stands a personality that accrues over time from various inputs—genetics, experience, learning, environment. Daniel Dennett styles this self the center of narrative gravity. In other words, we all make sense of our own identities by telling ourselves a story about our own lives in which we are the protagonist.

The pattern of this narrative is normally drawn from the stories we learn when children. The work of psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell uncovered one of the most archetypical structures of all: the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey, in which a protagonist is called to action and must face a series of terrible trials before emerging triumphant. People don’t see themselves as the villains of their life stories, clearly. We all want to be heroes, no matter how unsung, and so we impose this pattern on the chaos of our lives, editing out the inconsistencies. As a teacher, understanding this tendency allowed me to move past conflicts and discipline issues to see the yearning for self-worth, for heroism, in my students.

Interestingly, the hero’s success in the monomyth is dependent on the help of others. French philosopher Paul Ricouer reminds us that each character’s individual identity always intersects those of other characters in the narrative. And the story of each real-world person’s identity shows that his or her life is inextricably linked to others, members of a community who are always constituents in each other’s identities. These become part of what Ricouer terms a we-identity, as for example the identity we share here in the Rio Grande Valley.

It wasn’t always easy to see myself within this larger context. As a teenager, I asked my father why we could speak Spanish despite our surname, why all my cousins were Garza and Pérez and Casas, why I was cursed to stand out not just because of my Anglo mother but also because of his imprecise heritage.

He told me, “We are border folk, bloodlines that cross and recross boundaries of river and class and culture. Each of us is who he is, wholly unique unto himself, a wondrous admixture of language and tradition. There is no limit you cannot cross, son, for you are frontier-forged.”

However, as a young teacher I had only understood half of this lesson. I was so driven to be an individual—intellectual, academic, rebelling against the norm—that I failed to see my thread in the larger fabric of this community. But I experienced at last an epiphany when faced with the need to reach my young charges, people from the very town I lived in whom I had begun to see—because of age and education and arrogance—as strangers, as Other.

Our we-identity draws on many shared funds of knowledge as cohesive glue, not least of which are the stories of our folklore, largely dependent on what Walter Ong referred to as orality to contrast with literacy. Oral cultures put great stock in the continuity of shared experience down the years. They emphasize memory, focus on community, and see stories as part of the weft of community identity.

As a result, storytellers have long been respected within oral cultures as the repositories and guardians of that lore. The Nahua tribes we now call Aztecs, for example, called these key members of society zazanilleh—those who possess legends. Though literacy has wended its way through our lives over the past hundred years, as it has in most corners of the world, we cling tenaciously to the residue of our age-old orality.

This is the powerful tradition I tapped into twenty years ago in that middle school classroom, a we-identity that I continue to explore to this day in my writing and speaking engagements. Our local tales of lechuzas, shape-shifting witches in owl form; la Llorona, the weeping spirit of a woman who drowned her children; duendes, strange goblins that steal away the young—these are important not because of any sort of objective truth they contain, but because of what they say about our communal experience, the insight they give into who we are as a people.

But even more revelatory for me was the understanding that stories can serve not only to bind a community together: they can be leveraged to break the borders between communities to weld us into a global we-identity. This species-wide solidarity has the potential to subvert cultural and political differences, facilitating social justice and fomenting peace.

Fields as disparate as comparative mythology and evolutionary psychology suggest that there exist what anthropologist Donald Brown called human universals, patterns and tendencies found in all cultures across the globe. Their discovery suggests that a global we-identity is achievable through exposure to stories across borders and analysis of shared structures and themes. Imagine curricula and social reform efforts constructed around exploration of these collective stories in all their variegated trappings, study that would celebrate the diversity of detail while leveraging the commonalities for great human unity.

Courses that compare societies, literatures, religions, languages to uncover deep and meaningful commonalities. Cultural events that explore local traditions alongside those of sister communities around the globe. Popular entertainment that rejoices in the rich variety of human experience rather than ridiculing all that is different. I am convinced that we would be better human beings if we fostered such a view.

What could we learn from Medea, la Llorona and Oiwa about the price of patriarchy? From O-ban, los Días de los Muertos, Halloween about the way we revere the ones we’ve lost? From Sunjata, Mulan, Lancelot and Joan of Arc about heroism? From Rumi, Shakespeare, Neruda and Sappho about love? From Jesus, Buddha, Quetzalcoatl, and Rama about putting others first in our lives?

In our present rush to embrace 21st century skills through rigorous, specialized study and standardized measures of success, we forget that we are not machines that can simply be programmed for elusive individual greatness. No, we are human beings whose brains evolved to roughly their present state 100,000 years ago there upon the African savannahs, huddled together in bands beneath the inscrutable stars, telling one another stories to make sense of our collective place in the trackless vastness of the world, facing that uncertainty as a single, interdependent group.

It is my firm belief that we move forward together or not at all. Ricouer argues that in ethical terms, universal narratives foster the importance of the identities of others over the self, for the narrative unity of a life is made up of the moments of its responsiveness or failure to respond to others. A responsive self, the sort likely to welcome a global we-identity, isn’t concerned with just its own autonomy—it lives in hope that its responsiveness to others can bring about a better life for all of them, a life in which they all participate with and for others.

If that sounds like a fairy tale, like a story—well, it is. The oldest story of all.

The story of our salvation.

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