A Few Thoughts about Narrative and Identity in Response to Reg Henry’s Column

Reg Henry, in a humorous June 30 column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brother, can you spare a narrative?, contends that most people do not know their stories and that narrative is often abused and misused to manipulate and polarize.

Following is a Naridus response. We suggest there is a fundamental ethical importance of knowing both the American Narrative and one’s personal narrative. Narrative provides the pathway for both social and individual change.

Looking forward to your response.

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Reg Henry catches sight of the power of narrative, (Portfolio, June 30), to provide continuity, clarity, and sense-making to one’s world. Mr. Henry’s examples reveal how narrative is often mistaken, overlooked, or abused in the form of polarizing and self-serving spin. I don’t think it’s so much “Brother, can you spare a narrative?” as it is, “Brother, can we tell our narrative?”

For the most part we all share a common narrative—the American Narrative: a melting pot of pioneering, can-do, responsible, fair and just people who do right by their neighbor and the world. Regardless of which side of the political fence one stands, this narrative provides grounding, shared beliefs, and an American identity. When we tell the story of who we are it provides clarity of imagination for the future and sense-making for decisions in the present.

Martin Luther King called on the foundational American premise that all men are created equal to reveal the deficiency of Jim Crow and provide the core narrative roots for civil rights. Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, called upon the responsible, do-right-by-your-neighbor component to supply the moral and social clarity that forever changed the indifferent, boys-will-be-boys acceptance of drinking and driving. Presently, we see the Christian influence of our narrative—the belief in stewardship—reforming how Americans review ecology and environmental choices. Too often we forget or discount our common narrative, which leads to a loss of identity, acting in ways that are incongruent with our core beliefs, and missing opportunities to live in ways that reveal the best of whom we can be.

Mr. Henry contends that many Americans have no narrative. I suggest that we each always have a narrative, but it is often not given the credence deserved. Few of us have been taught or shown the transformational, identity-integrating power of knowing and telling our story. We’re more often focused on measuring and quantifying skills and achievements, but rarely concerned to what end.

Too often our narratives are left to chance and we follow paths that may not suit our passions and callings. My experience makes clear that narrative development should be begin early. Many young adults have little clue as to why they are following the route they are following. Later in life they are often misfit for their careers, marriages, communities, which leads to unhappiness, and a yearning for something better. Brother and Sister, knowing the nuance of our American narrative can reveal the common ground from which to genuinely discuss common concerns, and see through snake oil huckerism. Taking ownership of our individual narratives helps each of us thrive, and make choices about living that serve to reveal who we can and want to be. In essence, attention to our narratives is a genuine, ethical concern.

Frank

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