One of my better lents was two years ago. I had decided to construct a chronology of my life. That is to say, I had decided to go look for independently verifiable events from my life and set them down in chronological order. What I discovered, and what you'll discover too if you try it, is that some of the key events in my personal narrative happened a lot sooner than I thought they had, some had happened a lot later than I thought they had and some of them didn't happen at all.
Now just saying that raises a problem. For another way of saying things happened earlier or later or not at all "in my personal narrative" is to say that my personal narrative was just wrong, that it wasn't true. That, in case you're wondering, is what made it a lenten sacrifice. And I undertook the thing precisely because I knew that assembling such a chronology was going to blow up the narrative. I knew this because I knew that chronologies have a tendency to disrupt narratives. What I didn't know was exactly how it would do it.
I'm so addicted to narratives that I must have expected that I was going to jump from one narrative to another. Maybe from one narrative to its mirror image. I've been conditioned to think this way all my life (and so have you) by something called the hermeneutics of suspicion. That is a tendency to think that the narratives we tell ourselves hide dark secrets. That's a credible claim because sometimes they do. The problem with the hermeneutics of suspicion is that it operates on the assumption that there is always a dark and unflattering truth lingering behind the narrative.
When Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she meant that we tell ourselves stories in order to conceal bleak, horrible facts from ourselves. When I set out to do my chronology, I expected to find bleak, horrible facts about myself. I expected to find proof that I'd been telling myself a story to hide from myself the ugly truth that my life had been made up of chaotic and disconnected moments driven by my selfish drive for power and sex.
Before moving on, pause and notice that that too is a kind of narrative. "People tell themselves stories to hide from themselves just how meaningless and unflattering their lives really are," is a kind of narrative. Not only that but it's a brutally simplistic narrative that cannot be true. It's the sort of thing a narcissist would cling to as a last point of refuge so they didn't have to give up their belief that they are very special. If I can't be a very good person, I can be a complete failure. (There's a a theory that some murderers kill as away to bestow a kind of meaning on their lives after a long series of personal failures.)
What I found when I did my chronology was not an alternative narrative. I did indeed find that a lot of things I do were done in pursuit of sex. That's what men do and it isn't evil. More importantly, I found was that there were a number of cases where I'd believed I'd behaved badly when I'd actually behaved pretty well. And I discovered that there were certain people in my life who'd consistently told me things about myself that weren't true. These were people very close to me who'd told me over and over again that I was a bad person whose judgment was no good. They hadn't told me I was evil. What they'd told me over and over again was that I needed to be brought down a peg or two for my own good. As a consequence, I'd grown up to be a man who doubted his own instincts believing that these always concealed baser motives that I was hiding from myself.
Okay, but how do I know I've finally gotten it right? Couldn't all this be just another illusion? It might be but "might be" doesn't mean "is". To believe, as Joan Didion appears to believe a lot of the time, that we just shift from one false narrative to another is to embrace a profound form of skepticism with all that comes with that. If someone says, "You just think you've found the truth but this is just your irrational desires masking the dark truths you know to be true," the obvious response is, "How do you know that doesn't apply to what you've just said? How do you know that your persistent skepticism isn't a way of masking the dark truth that you aren't the smartest person in the room, that you aren't the only one who can see the bleak truth that everyone else is trying to avoid?"