It’s what we’ve been doing for the better part of 10,000 years.
We’re either telling or listening. We’re attuned to the narrative of our existence as interpreted by others and broadcast back to us in one form or another.
It’s how we understand one another. It’s also how we fail to understand one another. The subtleties of our lives lost in translation, as it were.
We look for the narrative in everything. Seeking it like truth or a map legend or a rubric.
On Friday, a 14-year-old boy in Marysville, Washington walked into a school cafeteria and pulled out a .40-caliber handgun and opened fire at a group of students sitting at a table.
He shot five students, killing one and critically injuring four others before allegedly taking his own life.
His name is Jaylen Ray Fryberg.
The narrative that developed in the black hole aftermath of yet another school shooting followed similar templates.
He was bullied.
His community failed him.
He was rejected by a girl.
These templates have been around for thousands of years before Shakespeare started borrowing them for his poems and plays.
I read a story today about Jaylen Ray Fryberg written by a member of his Tulalip Tribe, a man who walked in the community along with Fryberg as he grew up.
His story is much different than the narrative depicted by the news media.
It’s not as easily swallowed as bullying, disenfranchised youth or rejection.
It’s complex, in that way that life is complex. It defies explanation, especially if you happen to be a member of the Tulalip Tribe.
When I first heard the story lines begin to emerge on Friday afternoon, my wife and I went for our customary date night and talked about the idea that our daughter faced a world where exercising choice is sometimes met with violence.
As a father, there is nothing more frustrating than helplessness.
For what purpose did god give us strength if we cannot use it to protect the ones we love?
If we cannot impart it in time of need to those in our care.
Our angst was compounded by a narrative that had, as far as I can tell, little basis in fact.
Jaylen Ray Fryberg, according to people who knew him, had been in a long-term relationship with a girl who did not even attend the school where he opened fire at a table full of students.
Yes, they may have broken up, but to conclude that rejection by a woman may have caused the violent outburst, to suggest that the boy went to a school with the purpose of killing the one he loved and who would not return his love is a salve as old as time, one that we apply when the truth is too nebulous to fit a pre-defined narrative.
Perhaps he was bullied. Perhaps the ever-present mental health dialogue will start when more facts are pried from the flames of a distraught community.
Some stories can’t be told.
It doesn’t stop us from trying.
We’re infatuated with applying some level of understanding to everything. It’s another frustratingly faulty and beautiful aspect of being human.
Great stories have multiple layers of understanding, often appearing as one thing to one person and another thing to other people. It’s what makes them universal and timeless.
Some stories are single dimensional, powerful one-celled organisms that are capable of causing untold devastation.
No matter how often we try to stick a better template on top of them, they remain, at their core, simple to the point of defying explanation.
Like a virus, they reverberate through our lives without cure or solution.
Reporters are trained to be skeptical of stories, to seek truth beyond the template.
But they are also trained to spot the narrative as a way to communicate each story as broadly as possible to humanity.
I worked the police beat on Sunday mornings early in my career . I learned which cops worked which shifts after several months, and I made a list of those who could tell a good story.
Cops are trained too. Some give you only the facts as they are laid out during an investigation, leaving the writer to weave a narrative or simply explain the facts with whatever context exists.
Others give you the facts and the vital pieces of information that connect the facts. This is the narrative, and if you find a cop who knows how to connect the dots, you’ve got yourself a gem of a story.
The problem is that as in most narratives, you have a single narrator who is likely made of dust, as are we all, and not omniscient.
It’s a single point of view as likely to prejudice and errors as any other.
Narrative is such a misunderstood and yet driving force in our daily lives. Our worldview is made up of narrative.
When I read about writers who attack the Bible as an oversimplified religious document that inculcates hatred and violence, I realize that these writers, ironically, don’t understand the narrative that exists in the books separately and the culture running along side and through it.
The same can be said of Muslims today.
The narrative bubbling up around the world is very different from the historical context of the Islamic religion and Muslim peoples throughout history.
The same could be said of every major religion at any point in history.
The saddest thing in the whole world right now is not Ebola or poverty or hunger or school shootings.
The saddest thing in the whole world right now is that we’re illiterate.
We’ve lost our sense of narrative. We only remember a few basic things, and into these things we try to cram every thing that makes us happy or sad.
If they fit nicely, we are comforted. If they don’t fit nicely, we re-write them or try to bury them in that mass grave of historical context.
The world is full of narratives. It is not ours to decide if they fit something we already understand. A template that we’ve built out of repetition.
It is ours to listen, to read, to watch. To look beyond the craftsmanship of story to the truths that tie us all together into one big, ugly, beautiful tribe much like the Tulalip Tribe of the Snohomish, our families in West Africa living the devastation of Ebola or the young Jihadi living deep inside his own narrative.
And sometimes ours is to suffer in the lack of knowledge. Sometimes ours is to feel, with others, the tragedy that defies explanation. This too is story. It’s the history that never quite fits the comfortable templates we’ve created.