Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Can't Understand

Every one of us is a storyteller.

Each day we set out to tell our tales. And we like to believe that in at least our own stories, we are the heroes. I believe that this is a very achievable goal. Issues crop up when we start to think of our stories in relation to all the other stories unfolding around us.

The truth is, no matter how awesome we are in our own stories, we are very unlikely to be the hero of someone else's. That doesn't mean that we're the villains. It's just that at best we're supporting characters, while most likely we're really extras. Background to that person's story.

But we want to be heroes.

So, when we hear about the obstacles cropping up in other people's stories, we rush to defend ourselves.

We did not cause that obstacle. Because we are heroes. And we understand everyone's obstacles, whether or not they're ours. Because we are heroes. And it is important that other people know that the obstacle in question was not created by us. Because...well, you know. The whole hero thing.

Except that isn't really important. And we have no real way of understanding the obstacles of someone else's story.

But we act like we do, because heaven forbid we look ignorant.

When I was a kid, my little sister would ask me all sorts of questions. More than half the time, I wouldn't know the answer, but there was no way I was telling her that. So, instead, I made crap up. Because I was her big sister and it was my job to have answers for her.

I went through two years of pre-school, K-12, four years of undergrad and a two year Masters program and never managed to shake the fear of a teacher asking me a question to which I didn't know the answer. Most of the time, I didn't even care whether or not I'd retained the knowledge I was supposed to. I just didn't want everyone else knowing if I hadn't.

Because no one wants to look ignorant.

But even for the smartest, most well-educated people, it's impossible not to suffer some degree of ignorance when it comes to other people's stories.

I identify as a lot of things. Here are a few:

Female. White. Heterosexual. Catholic. Daughter. Little sister. Big sister. Aunt. Godchild. Godmother. Friend. Niece. Cousin. Rape Survivor. Writer. Reader. Storyteller. Development and Communications Director. Former Federal Employee. New Yorker. American University Alumni. Star Wars Fan. Obsessive Quoter of Movies. Nerd. Scrapbooker. Greeting Card Giver. Owner of Embarrassing Number of Adult Onesie Pajamas. Christmas Nut. Superhero Wannabe. Believer That Life is a Musical If You Make It a Musical. Baker. Pie Lover. Turtle Mom. Nutella Consumer.

Now, maybe one of you is reading this and thinking, "Yes! I am every one of those things." To you, I say, "Hello, soul sister." More likely, you're looking at this and thinking, "Yeah, I can relate to some of that."

That's really the best we can hope for. That we'll find things in other people to relate to. Because there is not a person in this world who can fully understand my story, as they haven't lived it. And there is not a person in this world whose story I can fully understand, no matter how close I might be to them.  Because I haven't lived it.

There's danger in claiming that we understand things we haven't experienced. It puts us in a position to dismiss or cut off a conversation that wasn't really ours to control.

When someone complains about the obstacles in their life and we use it as an opportunity to jump in and explain how we are not part of the problem - because we're heroes and we understand - we're hijacking someone else's story to make it our own. Which might not necessarily make us villains, but certainly doesn't make us the solution of obstacles.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is take a break from heroics. To settle in momentarily to being someone else's extra. To say, "I can't understand your story, not because I don't want to, but because it will never be my experience. I don't know whether or not I'll sympathize with it. I don't know whether or not we'll agree with each other when it's over. But I'd like to listen to it anyway." And then to do just that. To let that story take center stage, even when you want to distance yourself from the obstacles. Even when you want to say, "That might be true, but not about me." To play a supporting role.

Because, every one of us is a storyteller. And every one of us deserves at least one commercial free telling of their story.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Five Superheroes of Grief

I’ve been layering on sweaters for the past week to guard against the chill. That’s right, the chill. Because apparently being within two and a half weeks of the first day of summer isn’t enough to get Mother Nature to stop giving Maine the cold shoulder. My only recourse is therefore to focus on large-scale summery thoughts.

And what’s more large scale and summery than superheroes?

Who, let’s face it, are half-assing their jobs. For all their strengths these super-individuals seem to lack a certain amount of staying power. Sure, they show up and save the day (and scores of lives) time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, that’s great, but what is the quality of these rescued lives?

Undoubtedly, everyone’s feeling pretty elated about the whole being alive thing at first, but what happens when that survivor’s glow wears off? Everyone has to deal with the fact that their entire concept of reality has just been blown to crap. Where, might we ask, are the superheroes then? Maybe they’ve flown the coop for a romantic getaway with that special someone or really had to book it back to school for their U.S. History midterm. Perhaps they’re just settling down for a well-deserved post-averting-the-apocalypse snack.

It doesn’t really matter because the result is always the same – the mere mortals are left to Kubler-Ross it up themselves and put their lives back together piece by piece. Which is particularly unfair when you consider that these five are so equipped to help humanity deal with the various stages of grief:

Denial – Hindsight

In the wake of total and utter destruction, sometimes it’s nice to pretend that none of it ever happened. Everything’s still fine. And who better to help with that than an individual whose claim to fame is his ability to accurately analyze how events could have ended if different choices were made? Carlton LaFroyge can listen for hours while humanity goes on and on about how things are still totally the way they were – no big. And each time he’ll just sagely nod and say, “They could have been.” The main reason Mr. LaFroyge will probably be willing to tackle this somewhat thankless job is for his own safety. I can’t imagine that there is anyone the other superheroes want to punch more in the face than this guy while he’s Monday-morning-quarterbacking their most recent supervillain defeats. Additional bonus, the fact that this gentleman is so intensely punchable will eventually catapult humans to the next stage of their grieving.

Anger – Hulk

There are a lot of angry superheroes. I’m pretty sure that all job listings for the career path state, “Qualified candidates must have a constant, barely contained fury simmering just close enough to the surface that it ruins any personal relationship they endeavor upon.” However, it would be foolish of me to pretend that there is a better face for Terrifyingly Overpowering Rage than Dr. Bruce Banner’s alter ego, the Savage Hulk. Childlike and temperamental, this hero is an expert in the navigating the physical manifestations of anger, aka breaking things. Thankfully, because Dr. Banner is a self-sacrificing sort of person he’ll probably be willing to help us humans smash out our issues and because he’s a genius, he’ll probably take us in controllable groups to a place where we’re less likely to do more damage than necessary to our established infrastructure. Now, odds are pretty good that the whole of humanity will tire before the Hulk does. So, when all the anger has been forced out of you, leaving nothing but an exhausted husk, it’s time to advance to the next stage. But, let’s keep it in the family, shall we?

Bargaining – She-Hulk

When everyone gets to the bargaining stage, Jennifer Walters is who we want in our corner. Generally, a little bit more chill than her cousin, Ms. Walters is a skilled and versatile attorney. She’s represented the whole spectrum of clients – victims of crime, criminals, corporations, superheroes and supervillains. And, she’s won. A lot. Not all that surprising, when you consider her talent for seeing various perspectives – even within herself. After all Ms. Walters and She-Hulk don’t always agree on the issues and they’re the same person. This is a lady truly gifted at the art of debate. Ready to try regaining normalcy through negotiation? Call her immediately. But if you’re feeling more like getting into bed and pulling the blankets over your head for awhile, maybe it’s time to move on.

Depression – Yellowjacket

Sad Henry Pym is sad. Crime fighting just doesn’t hold the same allure it once did. He hasn’t made a big scientific discovery since those Pym particles. Even worse, his failures seem highlighted by the successes of all those around him and it’s throwing him off his game, not to mention making for a fairly miserable home life. Which kind of explains why he jumped the gun and screwed up Captain America’s plan to calm down the Elfqueen, leading to his subsequent court-martial. Spoiler alert: Things for Dr. Pym are going to get worse before they get better, making him the perfect choice for the public when they reach the stage of melancholy and despair. This guy is an expert in those feelings. Just a little tip for humanity – when Pym starts talking about how much greater the world would be if we could all just build a giant robot to attack our friends, you might want to think about scheduling a meeting with our final hero.

Acceptance – Oracle

Barbara Gordon kicked quite a bit of ass as Batgirl. Then the Joker shot and paralyzed her, ending her crime-fighting career. So, what did she do? Built a new freaking crime fighting career – continuing to help Batman, joining up with the Suicide Squad, forming the Birds of Prey, and serving as a member of a little group of well intentioned souls called the Justice League of America. Because when the going gets tough, the tough like to work with Barbara Gordon. Why? She keeps her shit together. Babs doesn’t pretend things are great – whenever her world is totaled, she acknowledges the astronomical level of suck and then keeps on moving forward. Who better, then, to help the general populace reach that final step of accepting that their old lives are over and it’s time to rebuild? Think of how full of purpose they’ll be. 

Right up until the next villain causes countless casualties and trillions upon trillions of dollars in property damage and everyone needs to start this whole damn process all over again.