Perilous narratives

One of the major signs that you’re creeping into depression is the narrative you’re telling yourself. If you’re managing to piece together random misfortunes and turn everyday slights into reflections on your worthiness to be alive, you rapidly start to construct a story in which the world is telling you that you don’t deserve to be here. Being able to disentangle these arbitrary connections is key to clambering out of the depressive pit, opening up life’s possibilities again and helping you recognise discrete moments in life for what they are: random, unconnected, survivable.

Weaving a narrative around certain aspects of your experience is perhaps unavoidable. As many many others have argued, there’s something about the way we experience time, moving from one hour to the next, passing from this day to the next day to the next, that invites us to think of our lives as following some kind of progression, or some kind of causal logic. Narrative, be it linear or not, is a way of thinking about motives, experiences and our present moment that helps us make some sense of where and how we are in the world. Just try and imagine explaining who you are now without relying on these things and you realise that things start to feel hideously chaotic pretty quickly when you peel back the narratives.

The danger comes when we forget that these narratives are fundamentally arbitrary, that they are created by us as a means of organising the vast array of stimuli that life throws our way. In order to work, this organising process is incredibly selective, constructing a story out of the most salient details and consigning the rest to silence. Again, as people like Hayden White have discussed in detail, narrative is as much constituted by what it excludes as what it includes – a story can only be told by choosing not to all possible others.

When the depressed mind stitches together fragments from everyday life into a self-loathing narrative, it does so by choosing to ignore all the equally present and equally random information that speaks of how you are loved, of your belonging, and the overwhelming evidence that none of us is exceptionally welcome or unwelcome in this universe. All the while, the depressed mind disavows its role in creating this bleak narrative and presents this story as fact, an undeniable, indelible truth. You can see how rediscovering the arbitrary nature of narrative works to open horizons up again as you come through depression.

But what’s struck me in recent months is just how perilous positive narrative can be. Putting ideologies and grand narratives to one side, it’s been the impact of the positive nature of the day-to-day stories that we tell ourselves that have unveiled to me the power and the dangers of our need for narrative.

The caring assurance that it will be alright in the end, that this will make you stronger. The positive assertion that you’ve worked so hard that you deserve this, so just hang in there. The knowledge that you are good, kind, have done all the ‘right’ things and hence good things will come. The certainty that there is something to be learnt, understood, or somehow taken from even the bleakest moment or most horrific event.

Why is a willingness to try and find a positive in the midst of the awful a problem? It isn’t necessarily. The problem comes when this is our default setting, our immediate reaction. The rush to narrative, the immediate impulse to insert the painful, tragic, traumatic into a larger story of strength, the need to find the positive angle straight away – making these arbitrary connections between present suffering and some unrealised future is actually a way of avoiding addressing that suffering. These narratives are not responses to the present; they’re a decision not to talk about the details of the present in order to construct the ‘other’ story, the positive one, the one that progresses towards a happier time.

The speed with which we look to the positive at the cost of tarrying with the actual experience of sorrow, despair, pain, leaves us utterly incapable of telling a narrative that really responds to the nature of that experience. Instead of slowly allowing a narrative to emerge that is shaped by what we’ve been through, we turn to the readymade, the stereotype, the way it should be. The cancer patient has a valiant, brave and touching fight for life. The addict reaches the lowest point and has a revelation that turns their life around. The dedicated artist suffers and struggles for decades before eventually receiving the fame and recognition they deserve. Insert own version of the positive narrative here.

All of these narratives only work by silencing the other stories: the horror and disintegration of living and dying with cancer, the absolute abject nature of an addict’s existence, the misery and boredom of sacrificing a life for a dream. As well as the stories of the people who don’t make it, because we can’t all have made it. It is physically impossible for the happy ending to come to all of us. And sometimes, something is just shit. It is so appalling or so banal in its ugliness that to try and take something profound from it is to outright lie.

If recognising the arbitrary nature of the negative narrative is vital to bring the depressed mind back to life’s possibilities, could we not say the same about the inanely positive? If we can’t recognise and respond to life’s challenges according to what they are, aren’t we just living half of the story? And in leaving the other half untold, aren’t we condemning the ones we love to suffer in silence?

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