Tells Stories and Believes Them

About four years ago, I wrote a very brief post that began, “Tells stories and believes them.” The quote was my memory (which I believe is correct) of a statement in a psychological inventory’s assessment of my personality. I didn’t recall then whether the quote was my “normal” behavior or my “behavior under stress,” but I’m pretty sure it described behavior under stress. I wonder whether my tendency to write and tell stories might be rooted in whatever that instrument’s measure triggered that statement? Could be. Though I don’t have full faith in the measure. But there was something to it. Maybe more than I was willing to accept at the time the report was made, when I was about 25 years old.

I think we tell stories about ourselves in many ways. One of the ways I believe I tell stories about myself is through the subjects I select to write about. My problem, of course, is that I don’t necessarily understand the plot line nor the message the story intends to convey. One such theme in my writing, whether fiction or journal or essay or what have you, touches on asceticism. Out of curiosity, I searched my blog for the word “ascetic” and got eleven hits. A quick scan of those posts confirmed that I have long been attracted to learning what asceticism might teach me. My repeated attempts at “doing without” something that’s normally part of my life speaks to that interest. And recollections of conversations with a college friend about trekking across India recall my interest in asceticism way, way back. I’ve written about cutting back my consumption (of food and luxuries, for example) many times. I’ve asked myself how my appreciation of the world in which I live might be radically different if luxuries I’ve come to consider necessities were truly hard to come by.

Something draws me to “doing without.” It’s as if refusing to allow myself luxuries might help me find a core within me that will reveal a secret I can’t get at otherwise. Perhaps it’s a sense that living simply would allow me to define myself apart from what I have and, instead, reveal the person beneath. Beneath the homeowner and automobile owner and electric utility customer and bank account holder and casual purchaser of things I think I want but know I don’t really need. But one cannot simply and suddenly shed one’s comfortable skin and live as an ascetic. People have wives and husbands and children and parents and siblings and friends and employers and so many others to consider. Society has bound us together to make it virtually impossible to explore what we can, really, do without. We can’t drag our families and social networks through the desert as we attempt to determine whether we can survive without shelter in the heat of summer.

Some people, though, willingly do live ascetic lives. Many of them do it for religious reasons. But some do it, I think, to get to know the person who resides inside their brain and brawn. I think they do it to test the limits of their ability to interact with the earth in a way that allows them, in a very real sense, to leave only footprints. On the other hand, many more people live not as ascetics but as impoverished victims because they seem to have no other choices. It may seem cold and hard to say this, but I wonder if many of those people could live better lives if they lived as our common ancestors did hundreds or thousands of years ago—forced to either scrape a life out of the earth through hard work and determination—or die trying. But, perhaps, that’s exactly what’s happening. They’re dying while trying to make lives from an unfriendly earth.

Like every other thought I have, I bounce between certainty and doubt and I argue against myself by calling attention to my own hypocrisy. I sit at my desk, warmed by electric heat and comfortable at my computer with a cup of coffee at hand, writing about asceticism. I long to know what and who I am at my core, yet if the opportunity presented itself, would I choose to live in a cave and find or catch my own food or starve?  Just moments ago, I thought “wouldn’t it be nice if I had a very small microwave so I could warm my coffee that I let cool as I was typing?” How can I—can anyone—speak or write about asceticism or poverty or living in harmony with the earth with any integrity unless they have experience with both luxury and crying need? I suspect it can’t be done, at least not believably.

Yet I keep coming back to it. The question seems to be, “if I strip away the soft flesh of a life of ease, would there be a worthy skeleton beneath?” Maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe I’m not looking for worth but for reality. Would that skeleton comprise human bones or would it be composed of artificial fibers and flakes of plastic and stainless steel rods? I don’t know what it is. I know only that there’s a secret someone hidden beneath us all. And maybe I believe my stories because they are true. Perhaps my return to questions of “doing without” is simply a way to tell a story of who I think I want to be without knowing who I am. Riddles. Just riddles. There are no answers to questions asked of themselves.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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