Stop Obsessing Over Endings, Our Stories Thrive in the Grey Areas
I’m going to take a wild guess here and assume that you are familiar with the before and after narrative. The one where people share the tale of their struggle, the ordeal of overcoming it and then making it to the other side? It usually goes in a template like this:
5 years ago, I was [stuck in an abusive relationship/failing my degree/any other less obvious struggle]
Today, I [married someone they love/received a degree or accolades/overcame the hurdles]
Telling your story takes a lot of courage — so I am in awe of the people who open up like that.
Yet, I cannot help but think about how unfair and cruel it is that, conventionally, storytellers and readers deem a story unworthy of being told or read unless it has completed a revolution around the sacred sun of ‘accomplishment’.
Our obsession with a rags-to-riches plot means that we often disregard the middle part.
It’s our loss, really, because this is the part where a character is moulded as the welding tools create sparks that hurt us, burn us and finally make us who we eventually turn out to be. So why don’t we ask more people about what kept them going? Why don’t we ask diamonds what it was like when they were carbon? What about the middle part? The messy dysfunction. The nightmarish days when the battle seems to be dragging you downhill. The days when you are sunk in Bukowski-like drunkenness. The days of abject misery — whether it looks like poverty or like hogging down mouthfuls from an ice-cream tub as your mascara flows into an abyss. What about the messy, chaotic and anarchic middle part?
At the time of writing his book, ‘Turtles All The Way Down’, author John Green said about his mental illness (he lives with anxiety and OCD, for those of us who don’t know), “It’s not a mountain that you climb or a hurdle that you jump, it’s something that you live with, in an ongoing way. People want that narrative of illness being in the past tense. But a lot of the time, it isn’t.”
Perhaps it would be easier for us to be gentle for such warriors if we stopped obsessing with the beginning and ending. Perhaps it would serve to uplift the spirits of such warriors if we looked at the middle as more than just a montage, as the injustices and aches that they go through in the unrelenting ongoingness of life?
If the goal of life is to nurture and be governed by kindness and empathy, then reading the middle of the story is an underrated urgency.
The middle part will acquaint you with the greyness of life: that the characters in the story are not good or evil, moral or corrupt, right or wrong. It is perhaps a matter of great discomfort to have to unlearn the idea of dichotomy that has been embedded in the fabric of our being, our pursuits and our yearnings. Of even greater discomfort is the idea that life operates in the grey area: where right and wrong don’t really exist the way we have been taught to believe in this division.
In her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso offers meditations on the ongoing nature of life, “Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.” She shares at one point, “It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.”
Lives flourish in the grey spaces — each cell in the body and each molecule breathes. Perhaps the litmus test for a life well lived is this: if it seems contrarian, if it seems paradoxical, if it seems oxymoronic, if it seems contradictory, then perhaps — we are doing it right.
So I guess my English teacher from 7th grade had no idea her words would become a cliche by the time I’d be grown up enough to understand them, but she was right in her parting remarks on my grade card, “It’s the journey, not the destination.”