The stories we tell

From America’s most trusted news network: Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.

Our daughter turned four last year. Hands down, the past four years have been some of the most joyous, profound, fun, exhausting, and frustrating years of my life. I feel like I must look like those before and after pictures of the President: oh, look how youthful and bright-eyed I am in this picture from 2010. Look how much grey in my beard now. And my knees. My god how my knees ache. When did I get this old?

And whereas the exhausting frustration of parenting comes surly from arguing with the irrational mode swings of this tiny human my wife and I created, exhausting frustration also comes from a genre of literate I like to call “You’re Doing It Wrong.”

You’re Doing It Wrong literature is certainly not limited to the mommy-blog and parenting corner of the Internet. (In case you missed it, you’re also brushing your teeth wrong.) The click-bait listicle spin rinse and repeat cycle of the internet requires you to believe that whatever you are doing right now could be done some other way, could be more productive more thoughtful more mindful more healthy better for the environment for your heart your family.

(Here’s a secret. Most parents are terrified. From the day you realize that your sole purpose in life is now to make sure this tiny helpless thing (covered in goo, by the way, always sticky) could literally die at any moment and probably from your own incompetence — this feeling is not caused by the Huffington Post. Evolution gave us this Pavlovian response to the sound of our child crying. Click bait just makes it worse.)

A good portion of “You’re Doing It Wrong” literature — especially when it comes to child-rearing — is focused on “how things used to be.” And at lot of this “things were better back in the day” finger-wagging is aimed at “screen time,” the absurd amount of time kids these days spend staring at their iDevices. For older kids, this is surly a sign of their inability to communicate (even though the primary thing they’re doing on their devices is communicating) and their disconnection from the world (even though most studies find “millennials” have a higher rate of civic engagement that my generation); for younger kids, too much screen time is probably giving them cancer and that video of a baby trying to “swipe” the pages of magazine like it’s an iPad is surely a sign that his brain has been warped (even though, think about it, how likely is it that he’s going to grow up in a world dominated by magazines?).

Every generation is convinced that things were better when they were kids. There’s a reason why inter-generational conflict is a cliché. There’s a reason why it was laughable that Tipper Gore wanted to keep kids from buying NWA records — because her parents want to keep her from buying Elvis records. And her grandparents were worried about jazz.

A few years ago, the phrase “free range kids” gained currency because some parents were rebelling against “helicopter parents” who never let their kids do anything by themselves and over-scheduled their already structured days to leave them with no time to run free in the streets and climb trees and play street hockey or go look for the long-lost fortune of One-Eyed Willy. “Remember when we were kids and had nothing but free time and could play at the playground without adult supervision?” Of course I do. I remember that time vividly. But most of my free time was the result of being raised by a single mother who had two jobs and therefore couldn’t pick me up after school and let my brother and I stay home by ourselves during the summer. My friends whose parents were still together usually had working moms and dads, too, and we all had plenty of free time in the afternoons because we were latch-key kids. That’s what they called us.

Back in the day, when I was growing up, “free-range kids” were called “latch-key kids.” Only this wasn’t a good thing. They held Congressional hearings about how latch-key kids were essentially being abandoned by their parents and it was probably feminism’s fault for convincing mothers to go out and get jobs. The reason kids these days have over-scheduled lives and helicopter parents is because the pendulum swung over the course of the ’80s and ’90s in reaction to the rhetoric that latch-key kids were spending too much time watching TV, getting into trouble, drinking and smoking and having sex and listening to Satanic heavy metal music — won’t somebody please think of the children!

You’re Doing It Wrong Literature is a reflection of a pernicious cultural narrative that has played out in this country since before it was country. Every generation thinks things are going to hell in a hand basket. And no amount of evidence to the contrary — no amount of evidence pointing to how kids today are healthier happier smarter better educated and live longer on average than previous generations — will convince us otherwise.

This is the power of narrative. Tell the same story over and over again and it becomes taken for granted as the way things are. Even when they aren’t.

***

Some twenty years ago, my grandmother died. During her last Christmas, the last Christmas my entire extended family spent together, my mom was coming down with a cold. She was stressed out, having been one of the primary care-takers of her increasingly-ailing mother for several months, and was now hosting a hoard of equally stressed out and melancholy family members in her tiny home in the woods. So I gave her some advice. Eat a clove of raw garlic.

I have no memory of this. Given the context of that Christmas — where I was at intellectually in my life at that time — I can guess what possessed me to tell my mom that eating a clove of raw garlic would cure her cold. I was still in college. I was probably going through a vegetarian phase. I was probably under the impression that Western medicine is all quackery backed by evil pharmaceutical companies and convinced that the ancient wisdom of Chinese Tibetan numerologists of Appalachia could fix all our problems. My hunch is that my tai chi instructor (yeah I did tai chi) — a very old Chinese American woman with permanent eyebrow tattoos who told us that if we were sick exercise was the best medicine and who took us on a tour of San Francisco’s “real” Chinatown — had said something about garlic that I interpreted as “hey mom, eat a clove of raw garlic and you’ll feel better.”

Here’s the thing, though. It worked. Not only did it work, but my mom now swears by it. Every time she even suspects that she’s coming down with a cold, she eats a clove of raw garlic. This past Christmas, she told everyone that she hasn’t gotten a cold since I first convinced her to do this two decades ago. (There must be some hyperbole there. I don’t live in the same part of the state as my mom, so it’s possible that I’ve missed some of her minor illnesses. Then again, maybe she hasn’t had any?) More than that, despite my complete lack of memory of ever telling her this crazy idea, she swears she got it from me (which she probably did). And because I don’t remember, this story has slowly changed over the years to include the punch line, “I was probably just fucking with you!”

This is the power of narrative. Not only is this shady medical advice reflective of a narrative of home-remedies suspicious of modern Western medicine, it’s also a family narrative — one that gestures toward that last Christmas with our family’s matriarch, my mom’s stress-induced illness, her relationship with her nutty/spiritual kid (now “doctor”) who’s also not infrequently a sarcastic son-of-a-bitch at family gatherings. On the level of family narrative, the story is illustrative of who we are, who we try to be, how we present ourselves to new members of the family (my wife, her family).

But on the level of medical advice, even if my mom has gotten a cold in the last twenty years, I suspect she’ll keep eating garlic the rest of her life because the narrative has become her story of health. It’s irrelevant whether or not I gave her the idea; it’s irrelevant whether or not I got the idea from “the Chinese”; it’s irrelevant if it “works” or not in any empirical sense of the word. It’s what she does. And it works for her. It provides her a sense of comfort and a feeling of control over her health that no amount of hard evidence or facts could provide.

The stories we tell ourselves are often more important, more powerful, than either fact or mere belief. This is where ideological atheists make their mistake in trying to convince people there is no god. It is irrelevant whether or not a religious person believes, in some literal sense, a religious story or myth. What’s relevant is how that story is narrativized — how that story is transformed from merely an ordering of events into something imbued with meaning, a meaning that helps orient that person to their world, helps them discern right from wrong behavior (note: not right from wrong; right from wrong behavior), helps them know who they are and how to be in the world.

“Do or do not; there is no try.” You know what that means, both as a general dictum and in its relationship to a specific story — and that story’s larger narrative, its system of meanings both within the source text, intertextually, and in the broader culture. I tell you to “do or do not” and you know what I mean and you know how I want you to behave in response to that charge and that knowing and that behaving has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Degobah is literally a real place that really exists. (Or, for that matter, whether or not you actually like the source material. It’s become such a part of contemporary American popular culture that you could have active disdain for the source material and you would probably still know what I meant and would still feel like it’s good advice and, depending on our relationship, still act accordingly.)

That’s the power of narrative. A pernicious truth that isn’t true that shapes how we see and interact with our world and defines our relationships.

***

The world is going to hell in a hand basket. Things were once great and now they suck. Badly. The traditional family is being destroyed by feminism. Or maybe homosexuals. I always forget which. No, wait. It’s the immigrants. That’s the problem. Whatever the cause, the problem is the same. Things are bad and they’re getting worse. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

This is the narrative of decline. And a current presidential candidate’s slogan to make this country great again trades on this narrative while merely being the latest iteration of a narrative that goes back generations.

If I had access to a time machine, I wouldn’t be surprised to find fist century BCE Romans sitting around their dinner tables complaining about how kids these days don’t know how good they have it and how surly the Republics’ days are numbered. Sure, on the one hand, they’re right. All empires fail. But they’d be off by a couple centuries.

It should go without saying here that a narratives of decline is embedded in the Buddhist tradition — the theory of the declining dharma. Whether it’s merely a reflection of impermanence and how all things change or the tradition absorbing Indo-Persian mythologies or the Buddha blaming women, it’s pretty clear that Buddhists have since the beginning been worried about the dharma going out of fashion. According to some, the Kamakura schools of Buddhism wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without playing on this fear of decline. That may or may not be true (I think there’s room for debate about how much Honen or Dogen or others really cared about mappo). What’s clear is that this theory of decline is a narrative as native to Buddhism as it is to contemporary American politics.

Viewed as narrative, we can see it as merely taken to be true, taken for granted as the way things are through sheer force of repetition. Let’s be clear: we don’t need to make America great again. By virtually any measure, Americans are better off now than they were in the past (this is not to say that everything’s perfect or that no more work is needed — clearly we have all kinds of problems; but let’s be honest about the kind of “greatness” that is being suggested and how that greatness is not so great for women and people of color and the poor while being pretty awesome for certain rich white dudes). And yet, his rhetoric of decline persists and takes on a veneer of truth (or truthiness) merely by being repeated.

Narrative is a powerful means by which persons discern right from wrong behavior, how they form community. Narratives are neither inherently good or bad; cold war narratives were used in equal measure to demonize those with dissenting politics and put men on the moon.

We need not get hung up on the rightness or wrongness of a narrative, but we would do well to pay them close attention, to critique and deconstruct them when they propel us away from one another, when they are used to tear us down or disenfranchise others. When they make us our worst rather than our best. Even though they have the semblance of truth, even though they are not concerned with facts, this does not mean that narratives are immune to facts. That they are immune from change. That they cannot be undone or challenged, re-appropriated, redirected, re-interpreted. Counter-narratives are just as powerful, transforming and redirecting social ties and cultural flows.

***

Is the Pure Land really real? I mean, really?

Who cares?

Apologies for that dismissiveness. What I mean is this: when we get hung up on the literalness of religious stories, on the literalness of belief, we miss the chance to discuss the narrative. What’s the story trying to tell us about how to live? Not what to believe?

(There’s a much larger underlying problem with belief, of course, and a literalist interpretation of religious narratives which has everything to do with a Protestant bias that has infected much religious discourse in the modern era. But that’s a different post for a different time.)

There’s a million different ways to interpret the narrative of Pure Land Buddhism — if nothing else, it’s a narrative of universal awakening and all that entails. But I’m not really arguing for that interpretation of this narrative. Here I want to merely argue for a recovery of Buddhist narratives in general.

I see two trends in popular North American Buddhist writing regarding Buddhist textual sources (leaving aside the hard-core philologists for a moment). On the one hand, there is what might be considered an (unhealthy) obsession with the historical Buddha; on the other, there’s an obsession with crazy monks.

Self-proclaimed secular Buddhists are the heirs of a project dating to the nineteenth century to locate the historical Buddha. Often focused solely on the Theravada canon (a problematic focus to be sure), this project parallels the quest for the historic Jesus while rarely questioning why we’re going tramping through Pali texts looking for him in the first place. I’m not going to answer the question of why we should or should not concern ourselves with looking for the historical Buddha; I mostly want to point out the primary casualty of this project — stories. We dismiss the story of the Buddha talking to tree spirits because tree spirits cannot be empirically provable. Who cares? Is the text asking us to believe — literally — that the Buddha was talking to a tree spirit? Or is it trying to tell us something about the dharma? If we’re able to take seriously Yoda, why aren’t we willing to take seriously a tree spirit? What’s the difference? Really?

The other trend, the obsession with crazy monks, seems to recover the story-casualties. But not really. This focus on the iconoclastic monk-as-fool serves the purpose of demonstrating how the wisdom of Buddhism is to be located not in its texts and history but in direct experiences of enlightenment. It’s not only very Zen (in the sense that the justification for this comes from the Zen tradition itself not in the sense of “how Zen” used by the marketers of table-top Zen gardens); it’s also very American in that it smacks of self-reliance, pull yourself up by your bootstraps anti-intellectual bucking system and, therefore and on both counts, extremely ideological. We don’t tell the story of two farts because of its narrative value; we tell the story to demonstrate how superior we are to others. (I know. I’ve done it. And feel like a pretentious douche for it.)

Recovering Buddhist narratives would allow us to tell stories without worrying about whether or not they are literally true. These stories weren’t written for modern Protestant Christian literalists anyway, so why are we concerned about that? They are morality tales and we should take them as just that. Revel in the message and the meaning not as reflections of some empirically provable set of facts.

A recurring narrative across Buddhist traditions concerns King Bimbasara, his wife and his son who wants to kill him. These are fantastic stories. Should we concern ourselves with whether or not these stories are an accurate representation of historical facts? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if King Bimbasara never existed, the narrative of his son’s attempts at patricide are important. It has a meaning and a value that falls outside the realm mere historical fact, outside simple belief.

This is a counter-narrative, a rejoinder to the contradiction of an exclusive nirvana. Within the tradition there is a category of being so bereft of karmic goodness that he has no hope for awakening — the icchantika. No matter what happens, this person is so thoroughly evil that he will never become a Buddha even after innumerable ageless kalpas of time. The existence of this category of being, however, calls into question the universality of nirvana. To be blunt, nirvana cannot be universal if it excludes even the most karmically evil. The Bimbasara-Devadatta narrative cuts against this view of nirvana and argues, unapologetically, for a universal nirvana wherein everyone is a potential Buddha, a bodhisattva-to-be.

Let’s leave aside the philosophy, the history, notions of belief, even the possibility that nirvana itself might not even be real but is merely something made up by mere humans two-and-a-half-thousand years ago as anti-Brahmanical propaganda. What does the narrative tell us about how to be in the world? About how to discern from right or wrong behavior? It tells us that everyone — even the most vile — are redeemable, potential Buddhas, subjects of our empathy and compassion, to be respected as just as flawed and just as redeemable as ourselves.

That’s why, when I’m asked if I think the Pure Land is really real, I say, “who cares?” The Pure Land might be a place in physical space — like Milwaukee — or it might be as factual as the planet Degobah. If it’s pure fiction, the underlying narrative of universal awakening nevertheless holds value, has meaning and worth, and serves as a powerful counter-narrative to those that seek to separate us from others, those narratives that create silos of ideological and tribal isolation, elevating the few at the expense of the many. Narratives are powerful and we would do well to take them seriously. Do or not do. So say we all.

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