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On narratives: interpreting ourselves backwards, imagining ourselves forwards

Jem Kleinitz Lister presenting her Stuart Hollaway Memorial Oration online
Jem Kleinitz Lister presenting her Stuart Hollaway Memorial Oration online

If the pandemic has disintegrated many of our individual narratives it has also left collective narratives in their place, and that, as Jem Kleinitz Lister explains, offers us the opportunity to find greater connectedness.

Before I came to Wesley in Year 10, I was what you call a third culture kid. I went to a British school in Denmark, and an American school in the Philippines, all while attempting to maintain some vague sense of my own Australianness. I was in no way unique, my classmates also came from all over the globe, friendship groups were revolving doors of people coming, staying until their contracts were up, and leaving. It was an incredibly rich and diverse community, but it was defined by impermanence, by constant goodbyes and an awareness that everyone around you existed in a transient state.

From these experiences, as any angsty, soul-searching teenager is wont to do, I began to create a grand sweeping narrative of my own life. I thought of myself as adrift on a sea of possibility, someone who doesn’t belong anywhere and doesn’t need to belong anywhere; I internalised and romanticised the alienation I felt. I have since reevaluated these ideas and begun to see that, perhaps, it was not that I had not risen to a higher plane of consciousness, I was just a bit lonely.

But these grand narratives we use to explain our lives are more than just comforting fictions. When we tell ourselves a story, we are not simply remembering or reidentifying with past events, we are actively interpreting them. These interpretations take many forms: maybe we see ourselves as someone who has always tried to be a leader, or who consistently aims for the highest grades, or who invariably goes for the lowest erg time, or who constantly helps other people have fun, or who perpetually knows the gossip before anyone else, or who unceasingly knows every synonym of the word always. We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves as the centre of a narrative gravity, the centre of an ongoing story.

This is not necessarily a symptom of some sort of inherent egoism in human beings. We can date back our storytelling capacity to five million years ago. Before we became the featherless bipeds we are today, one of our ancestors was the tree-dwelling Oreopithicus, a heavy primate who struggled to swing from branch to branch. In order to move safely, not to fall, it had to develop a sense of self, a sense of itself in relation to its surroundings, and planning skills. Before clambering across the tree canopy, it had to imagine itself displaced forward in time; to mentally simulate future situations to avoid making the wrong decision. ‘If I step on that rotten branch, it might snap. Therefore, I should climb down to the base of the tree and go up again so that I can reach my bananas.’ In order to survive, Oreopithicus had to tell itself stories about itself: cohesive narratives with beginnings, middles and ends.

So, in the grand tradition of the Oreopithicus, modern humans understand their lives narratively. We interpret ourselves backwards, so that we can imagine ourselves forwards. We create long chains of cause and effect in our past, to help ourselves understand who and what we’ll be in our future.

However, the way we use these narratives now has far extended prehistoric banana escapades, and in many ways become self-fulfilling prophecies. This was certainly the case for me; I became so confident in my own aloofness that I ended up worsening the detachment I felt. This phenomenon, of a self-fulfilling prophecy, speaks to the fact that despite our lives being too intricate, too complex, to be so easily distilled into a cohesive narrative, we hold on to them nonetheless, desperate for some security in our predictions of the future, and eventually, we manifest our own fictions.

Jem Kleinitz Lister presenting her Stuart Hollaway Memorial Oration online
Watch Jem's Holloway Oration

Simple stories with beginnings, middles and ends do not describe human existence; our lives are messy, filled with masses of irrelevant detail and subplots that go nowhere.

So, what’s the point? Why have I blathered on about how we narratively define our lives forwards and backwards, only to say that it is an immensely redundant way of doing so? Well, like most things this year, because of the pandemic. I know, I know, you thought you were going to get through a whole speech COVID-free, well, sorry, no such luck.

What we’ve experienced this year is Exhibit A in how the stories we tell ourselves fall apart. When the usual routine, the circular rhythm of each week, each month, each year, is disrupted and we feel the coldly linear march of history at our backs, our essentialist fictions about ourselves begin to fall away. Taking ourselves out of our usual settings and confining us to our homes has allowed us to reflect, to see what aspects of ourselves were not, in fact, essential components of our personality, but simply reactions to a specific set of circumstances we had become accustomed to. Furthermore, in these uncertain times, we have limited ability to project ourselves forward, to see a clear end that will neatly link on to our beginning and middle.

Much of the sadness of this year has been the mourning of our cherished narratives. We feel not just the lives lost because of the pandemic, but the expectations lost, our ideas about who we could be and what we could do. We mourn the loss of our sports games, our music events, our Formal, our friends’ birthday parties, with the same sadness of the Oreopithicus who miscalculates a branch’s strength and loses its footing. We lament the inability to accurately understand our pasts and predict our futures.

We face the reality of living in an absurd, unpredictable world that has no consideration for how individuals would like to exist in it. So far, so bleak; however, there are two silver linings to this fact that have been highlighted by the pandemic which can perhaps alleviate some of the existential angst facing us at this point.

The first is freedom. Liberating ourselves from the narratives we’ve constructed about our own life allows us to avoid creating circular patterns of self-fulfilling prophecies that limit how fulfilled we can be. Now, in no way do I mean to suggest that the pandemic has been a freeing experience, only that in the immense disruption it has caused, it has jolted us out of our own familiar patterns and our illusions of control, and in giving those up, there is a kind of freedom to be found.

Secondly, the disintegration of many of our individual narratives has highlighted the existence, and importance, of collective narratives. We now see ourselves as deeply affected by, and active participants in, the narrative of Victoria’s COVID-19 response. We ride the crests and valleys of hope and pessimism along with the rest of our communities. Our individual disappointments, although very real, become part of a larger story about how a global community responded to a pandemic. Our individual stories have become eclipsed by a collective one, and in being a part of a larger community, we gain some perspective on the scope of our own difficulties.

Painful as it is, in being forced to set our own egos aside and relinquish our individual fictions, we can find greater connectedness. The story I used to tell myself isolated me, and if I had only seen that I was not as big of a deal as I thought I was, that I was just an infinitesimally small part of a much larger narrative, I might have been a lot happier. It’s worth reevaluating our own stories as, when we do, we realise that we are not planets, alone in space, orbiting our own centres of narrative gravity, we are all part of a vast galaxy, orbiting a centre beyond any individual’s control. In giving up our illusions, we are free to laugh in the face of the absurd world we live in, and better yet, we can laugh together.

Thank you.

Jem Kleinitz Lister is a Year 12 student at the St Kilda Road Campus, Charities and Community Service Prefect, Captain of Debating and recipient of the 2019 Stuart Hollaway Memorial Oration Award. This is the text of her oration presented at a recent online assembly.

The Stuart Hollaway Memorial Oration Award was established to honour the memory of long-time staff member Stuart Hollaway who tragically lost his life in a climbing accident in 2015. The memorial award is conferred annually on a Year 11 student who has made a significant contribution to the debating program and public speaking, has demonstrated a passion for argument and discourse, and embodies the College motto, Sapere Aude, in the application of rhetoric and reason in the defence of others and the pursuit of justice.