Self-Authoring Meta-Tale

“I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,” said Strider, “in brief--for it is a long tale of which the end is not known...”
It was not the thing that I expected to find most difficult about doing Professor Peterson’s Self-Authoring Present: Virtues and Faults.

Confessing my sins to the world? No problem! I have been doing that on this blog for nine years now, which is why I started after Easter with my Faults, to get warmed up. Plus, it seemed appropriate to do a confessional novena, having been newly confirmed as a Catholic. Writing about my Virtues after Pentecost was more challenging. I have a hard time seeing my strengths as strengths. I tend to want to change them into Faults so as not to feel like I am bragging.

But writing stories to illustrate my Virtues and Vices? That should have been easy! Like a good Franciscan preacher, I know the value of exempla. Except, it seems, when it comes to my own life.

I have spent my life “self-authoring” in one guise or another. The diary that I kept throughout adolescence. The Artist’s Way Morning Pages that I did in the years before and after I got tenure. This blog. I have decades’ worth of reflections on my inner self, my frustrations and dreams. I should be a champion story-teller. Plus, after all, I’m an historian, right? History is all about telling stories. Or should be.

What’s in a story? Terry Pratchett had a theory:
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around... Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself...
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
For Pratchett, the real heroes are the ones able to resist the grooves of story, to “fight back, and become the bicarbonate of history.” Like Magrat, the Queen. Or Nanny Ogg, the Mother. Or Granny Weatherwax...the Other One.

I like the idea of being a witch like Granny Weatherwax in Witches Abroad, outwitting the Story and asserting my Self against the expectations of Tradition. Or, at least, against the expectations of my contemporaries and academic peers. That’s the whole point of being a witch--a lady wizard. The one who says the things that need to be said because if she doesn’t, no one else will.

Which means, in truth, I want to be part of the Story. But which one?

Professor Peterson is somewhat more sanguine. Yes, in Pratchett’s words, “stories...have evolved...and grown fat on the retelling,” but this is because stories distill the experience of millennia. A thousand heroes stole fire from the gods and ascended the dominance hierarchy to become meta-heroes, the hero of heroes like Marduk or Horus, able to see how to kill the dragon and rescue his dead father from the underworld. Like Jesus conquering death and bringing Adam and Eve up from Hell.

Stories, from this perspective, are not constraints, but patterns that enable us to act. In Professor Peterson’s words:
We use stories to regulate our emotions and govern our behavior. They provide the present we inhabit with a determinate point of reference--the desired future. The optimal “desired future” is not a state, however, but a process: the (intrinsically compelling) process of mediating between order and chaos; the process of the incarnation of the Logos--the Word--which is the world-creating principle....
The hero is narrative representation of the individual eternally willing to take creative action, endlessly capable of originating new behavioral patterns, eternally specialized to render harmless or positively beneficial something previously threatening or unknown. It is declarative representation of the pattern of behavior characteristic of the hero that eventually comes to approximate the story of the savior
Behind every particular (that is, historical) adventurer, explorer, creator, revolutionary and peacemaker lurks the image of the “son of god,” who sets his impeccable character against tyranny and the unknown. The archetypal or ultimate example of the savior is the world redeemer, the Messiah--world-creating and -redeeming hero, social revolutionary and great reconciliatory. 
It is the sum total of the activity of the Messiah, accumulated over the course of time, that constitutes culture, the Great Father, order itself--explored territory, the domain of the known. In the “meta-stable” society, however, the Father, though healthy, is subordinate to the Son: all fixed values necessarily remain subject to the pattern of being represented by the hero. In the “City of God”--that is, the archetypal human kingdom--the Messiah eternally rules.
Here’s the thing: I have a problem telling stories in which I take the part of the hero. Not lately, to be sure. I have had the time of my life the past several months telling my story about blogging for Milo. But sell myself as the great adventurer taking creative action? I burst into tears at the very thought.

Neither do I have much patience with other people telling their hero-stories. What my mother calls “visiting,” I call excruciating anecdote. Give me ideas to wrestle with, not endless accounts of how you managed to find the right restaurant. Or outwitted the shopkeeper. Or got lost while on holiday.

I have stories like that, I just don’t think they are very significant. Everybody tells them, they are the stuff of life. Which is precisely the point.
“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” [said Sam.] 
“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
I know what kind of tale I would like to be in. A romance. Or a detective story. Ideally, a detective story with a romance: love, and finding things out. The excitement of discovery--with someone else. Justice for the wronged, and a feeling of connection with my partner in puzzle-solving.

I particularly love stories in which there are layers and layers of symbolism. Like the stories in the Bible, properly understood, the way medieval Christian exegetes read them. As clues to a mystery, never fully resolved. “Now I see! It all makes so much sense!” It is why Dan Brown is a best-selling author. His hero is a detector of symbols who regularly falls in love.

I love when it seems like stories mean something. But what is meaning? Finding ourselves in the story, like Frodo and Sam.
“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thagorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it--and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got--you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still!”
There is a discussion ongoing on my Facebook feed about the definition of religion. For me, Professor Peterson’s definition come closest to the way in which I understand the importance of faith. We define ourselves by the stories that we inhabit, the heroes we see ourselves through, and the meaning that we experience in living according to their model.

Many of my Facebook friends and friends of friends insist that they have no religion, which to me means that they have no stories by which their orient their life. I think they do have such stories but perhaps, like me, have not fully articulated them, although I know the story that I would most like to be true. How to test it? In Professor Peterson’s terms, by embodying the hero and speaking the truth.
The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern ensures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations, including that of the maintenance of stable belief). 
This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao)--extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang)--ensures that the “cosmos” still continue to endure. 
Figure 40: The Process of Exploration and Update, as the Meta-Goal of Existence schematically presents the “highest goal” of life, conceptualized from such a perspective: identification with the process of constructing and updating contingent and environment-specific goals is in this schema given necessary precedence over identification with any particular, concretized goal. Spirit is thus elevated over dogma.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). A statement of faith--or a description of the archetypal hero by whose example we learn to speak--and to live?

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 185-87.
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad (London: Corgi, 1992), pp. 8-9.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 187 (Strider), 696-97 (Sam and Frodo). The point is that Sam and Frodo are in Luthien (Tinúviel) and Beren’s story, just as Christians understand themselves to be in Christ’s.

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