Several years ago a neighbor who was about my age died suddenly, and I attended his wake along with my wife. Apart from a few friendly curbside conversations over the years, I can’t say I really knew him very well. But I got a strong sense of who he was from the family photos on display in the funeral parlor and the Red Sox memorabilia decorating his open casket. My neighbor had belonged to the big Roman Catholic Church in town and seemed to have known everybody. The receiving line threaded through several rooms, and there were photo displays in each one: snapshots from his childhood, wedding pictures, pictures of his kids, vacation shots, the story of his life.
The earliest recorded stories are believed to be paintings found on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in southern France dating from 15,000 to 13,000 BCE. But storytelling as such has probably been going on as long as hominid brains have been wired for speech. For individuals, the process begins as soon as we learn to speak in sentences, particularly sentences in the first-person singular. Then it’s no longer just a matter of saying that stuff happens; now it’s stuff happening to me, and the adventure begins.
Our stories broadly attempt to answer three questions: who am I, where did I come from, and what will become of me? My sense of self is derived only partly from the facts of my existence: I am male, Caucasian, married, a parent and grandparent, of a certain age and occupation. These facts may have relevance to a census taker, but they will not tell you much about who I am. The stories I tell about myself do not develop in isolation but are derived from -- and are often embedded in -- larger narratives about family, tribe and nation. All of these were on display at my neighbor’s funeral, not the least his membership in what we New Englanders fondly call Red Sox Nation. It is these stories that give our lives their meaning.
We all want our stories to end happily ever after, but sooner or later most of us come to realize we are not living out a fairy tale. We can’t all be homecoming queen or captain of the football team, win a full scholarship to Harvard, marry the girl or boy of our dreams, become a captain of industry or write a best seller. Sooner or later, something bad will happen to us, and, of course, the story always ends badly. Without fail, the hero dies in the end. Being the inveterate storytellers that we are, we want to rewrite the ending. We want to wind up in heaven, where we will be reunited with loved ones and perhaps the family dog. While this may conceivably come to pass, we don’t get to write the final chapter of our story. In fact, from the moment we are able to string together sentences in the first-person singular, we may discover that the protagonist who thinks he is telling the story of his life is merely a character in a tale told by another.