Tuesday, December 11, 2012
December brings us stories. In this last of month of the year we celebrate stories of paramount religious explanations, those of miracles and faith, intertwined with the tales of personal tradition, family memories and community rituals.
Stories tell the tale of our history, help us to appreciate our present and shape the future of our narrative. Of course, these are not the stories of pure analytic examination; these are the moral and ethical stories of the human condition.
"It is through hearing stories ... that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are," opines Scottish thinker Alasdair MacIntyre, an appropriate philosopher for our December musing. "Deprive children of their stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words."
December offers us a special moment in time to reflect upon tradition and stories while living in our technologically advanced, Western, go-as-fast-as-you-can culture. Against the backdrop of holiday consumerism and 24/7 e-chatter, we have the magical opportunity to pause and honor the art of storytelling, to participate in the sacredness of tradition.
A determined, unwavering voice of the story speaks if we are willing to listen. Through its songs in the cold, its fireplace whispers, its reverent prayers, its memory of benevolence, its acts of kindness, December's story reminds us to stop and tell a tale or to listen to another's, to bask in the welcoming chapter of the ancient tradition of membership in the story of many narratives.
This runs quite contrary to our modern idea of philosophical individualism. According to the concept of tradition and storytelling, we are uncomfortably unified, not autonomous. We are impossibly entangled, not independent. Our human story is an unavoidably social one. Our past, our traditions, our history, our genetic predispositions -- they all become part of our own exclusive story.
But MacIntyre says we must remember that our present story will become part of someone else's history. We may acknowledge a unique location of time and place in our story, a specific intersection in both the microcosm and the macrocosm.
However, we must embrace the undeniable fact that our story is not an isolated soliloquy. Our narratives are ours to write, yes, but they are always overlapping with an endless discourse of other stories. Unavoidably, this means our human stories are not always linear. The good reads, well, they are never stagnant, neat or tidy. They never have been.
MacIntyre reminds us that it is from observing our own character's role in the greater story and from honoring the traditions in which we participate, we gain our sense of morality, virtue and ethics. Often, we play the main character, but we all have roles to play as supporting characters in someone else's story, too.
"To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one's birth to one's death is ... to be accountable for the actions and experiences which compose a narratable life," he writes in "After Virtue." We are both accountable and dependent upon our communities and to those with whom we share our tale.
Stories remind of us of our own possible redemption, our struggle for recovery and our human desire for acceptance. Powerfully, we do not have to continue to follow the script we are given if we choose to write our story differently. Stories that begin with tragedy can end happily; stories that began with great hope may be tragic in their conclusion. Inevitably, the stories never happen in isolation. These are the stories that encourage and empower us with the opportunity to discover, change or reinvent our own unique selves in the greater context of setting, plot and scenario. Inextricably connected, our happiness, our tragedy, our successes and failures unavoidably affect other stories.
The beauty of any great story is that it contains a particular amount of possibility. Our philosophical stories have many different potential endings, parallel themes and changes in character development that help to preserve the continuity of our complicated narrative.
This last month of the year urges us to listen, to sing, to celebrate and to observe, to remember no story is obsolete. Our tale of this year is ending, but the next chapter is waiting to be told.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .