Monday, April 26, 2010

On Fiction

What, after all, is fiction? Can you give me a good, clear definition? Bet you can't, beyond "something that didn't really happen." But I really can't offer you a much better one. The border zone between truth and fiction is a hazy place. However, most of us would assert that "real life" is not fiction, because it's, well, real.

But it's not so simple. We tell ourselves fictions, and they become our realities. Truth is often stranger than fiction—but only for the simple fact that the truth is often ignored. Fiction, it seems, is often more palatable.

I think of this because my mother-in-law, bless her heart, recently asked my husband if our marriage is doing poorly. Not long before, when I had explained that I'd likely be leaving one of my part-time jobs soon, so that we have more family time together, she said, "So your marriage isn't doing that great." There's a difference, but it's she apparently only sees binaries. Truth is, we've been tag-team parenting for about 18 months—more about that in a later post—but I'll just say that it's exhausting. I can't tell you how much we're looking forward to sharing weekends together again. My dear MIL has apparently imagined us on the rocks—but nope, we're here, same as it ever was.

When we were married, my mother in law (bless her heart) asked me repeatedly whether I was sure I wanted to marry her son—as if she couldn't quite believe it.

When I look at the track record that has emerged, I would say that my fictional life, in her mind, is filled with much more drama than my real life actually features. While I'd like to be sitcom-worthy—we all like a good story—the truth is, things are more or less fun and okay.

Our lived realities are created in large part by what we tell ourselves—it's not what is true, but rather what we convince ourselves is the truth.

My mother-in-law isn't the only one imagining a better real world, though. If you've watched Food, Inc., or read anything by Eric Schlosser, or Michael Pollan, you know that the way we eat in these parts is a case of willed ignorance. Food, Inc., didn't tell me anything I didn't know already about our top-heavy industrial food systems, but it highlighted the clandestine nature of the way much of our food is produced. We imagine transparency—healthy farms, lush plants and animals, and even fairly paid and well-treated laborers—but much of our food comes from places that would turn our stomachs. Sure, this food is inexpensive and readily available. But we kid ourselves about its origins. We don't want to know the path from cow to hamburger—facing the truth would leave a bitter taste in our mouths. So we keep telling ourselves stories, imagining nice farms, happy animals, and various iterations of agrarianism.

I may come across as pointing fingers, but if I do, rest assured that four fingers point right back at yours truly. I still grocery shop like anyone else.
More "ethical" food comes with its tradeoffs, like cost and convenience, and those are biggies. And I tell myself other fictions, too. I live in Westwood—is there any other way, if you live in Westwood? "This is a really nice neighborhood," I tell myself. It is--mostly. Good neighbors, it's generally quiet, access to public transportation, a local library nearby. But it has its problems: plenty of casual theft; drug traffic; underperforming public schools. Ignoring the problems makes the place seem nicer, but only if I remain ignorant. And if I remain ignorant, I'm complacent. I'm a bystander. I'm not part of the solution. Optimism, and believing in the possibility of something better, is only healthy when one's eyes are wide open to the problems.

So, in terms of truth and fiction, I suppose it's important to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves, about how the world works and why we do what we do. And if we don't like the stories, we need to try to retell them. Try to change the endings. Imagine ourselves as protagonists. Reading the world around us can be a challenge—and rewriting it even more so.


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