Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about narratives, identity and time. Narratives are everywhere; each of us has a story–many stories in fact–and these stories shape who we are. Stories shape identity, and the one who tells the stories shapes identity.
Here’s an example. Through four decades, the USA and the USSR were engaged in a Cold War. We call it “Cold” because the two countries never became direct belligerents; each attacked the other’s satellites/allies and tried to subvert the economic and political purposes of the other. The smaller countries of the world lined up on either side in exchange for support from a superpower: we supported the right-wing juntas and they supported the left-wing revolutionaries. In the US, our identity had always been tied to “freedom”–but now we were the world’s only hope against the iron curtain of communism. We justified pointless wars in Vietnam and Central America by convincing ourselves that we were standing against the oppressors. Villains in action and spy movies inevitably had Eastern European accents, and the threat of nuclear war was in the back of each person’s mind. Our hockey triumphs at the 1960 and 1980 Olympic Games felt ideological rather than merely athletic.
Now that the Cold War has been over for 20 years, however, the narrative of American identity in a global world has changed. Americans have begun to see America as an oppressive interventionist power. Islam and the vague notion of “terrorism” is our enemy now–and Muslims and terrorists could be anywhere! The narrative changes, and our identity changes with it.
The Cold War is a grand narrative of international identity. But it shaped the personal identity of most Americans and Soviet citizens for two or three generations. Narratives might be cultural, like the counter-culture of the ’60s, the Gen-X generation, American Gothic, or teenage Goths. They might be regional: Southern, Northeastern, Philadelphian. Other narratives come from art and media (and it’s difficult to know the degree to which art reflects or conversely shapes culture): Lost, hip-hop, CNN. There are sports and entertainment: 2009 New York Jets, movies, Tiger Woods.
Some narratives are personal, relational and vocational: father, daughter, painter, homeowner, homemaker, orphan, engineer. All of us have narratives, and we try to add and drop them, change them, reject them, enhance them–with varying motivations and degrees of success.
I’ve decided to take an account, make a reckoning, come to terms with all the different narratives of which I am a part–or of which I fancy myself a part. For example: I am an evangelical Christian–but even more specifically, I am a broadly Reformed Christian converted from dispensational premillennialism as an adult. I am an aspiring academic, working in a non-academic field. I am a husband, and now I am a new father. These are part of my story: who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be examining the my narratives, and evaluate my place in them. I’ll be asking myself these questions:
- Who am I in this story?
- How did I get into this story?
- Can I change this story? Should it be changed?
- To what degree am I engaged with this narrative? How central is it to my being?
- Should I be more or less engaged?
I’d be honored if you share your comments and stories along the way.