Sometime around the start of the pandemic last year (my phone wants to correct that as pandemonium, which seems appropriate), I had a call with my old friend Derek.
I caught him up on some stuff, since we’d first met many years ago at a blogging conference and hadn’t kept in regular touch. Derek is a brash New Yorker who loves to tell the truth and won’t mince words.
The last text I had from him before this call was when I told him my wife at the time and I had just bought a house, and I was painting the halls. “Why the fuck are you doing that?” he said. “You make too much money to do that.” I don’t know if he was right, but I hired a painter the next day to finish the job and felt much better.
The topic of divorce came up. He asked me the whole story, and I told him. He said he was sorry and he understood. And then he said, “So who cheated?”
I laughed nervously.
He didn’t back down. “Come on, dude. Nobody just gets a divorce for no reason. No judgment. But… you cheated, right?”
I said I didn’t. That there were things I would have done differently, that I had regrets. But, no. I ended the marriage and started dating. And then Covid hit and the shit show began.
I think often about our conversation. Divorce is one of those things that tends to bring with it a lot of nosy questions. What happened? Whose fault was it? Who cheated? We humans don’t do well with just a little information and less than “the whole story.” Every effect has a cause. What made this happen?
I read a novel last year, Fleishman Is In Trouble, in which the narrator who’s getting divorced says what people are really asking when they want to know the whole story is, “Will this happen to me?
It makes me wonder now. What did happen? Whose fault was it? How is it that every time I tell the story, I tell it slightly differently? I mean, I have been the villain, the victim, and even the hero, depending on my audience and state of mind. And I’m sure I have also been all those things even when that wasn’t my intent, depending on my audience’s state of mind.
Our memories tell us more about who we are now than what happened to us then. And so when we think of the point of the story, we need to understand: it’s not about what happened. That is irrelevant.
This is, I think, the point of all Joseph Campbell’s work. Are these myths and stories from ancient religions factually true? Did they actually happen? A memoir writer I know whose story of an abusive alcoholic father brought me to tears told me, “You know, there is essential truth and factual truth. It doesn’t need to have actually happened in order to be true.”
We are always using stories to make meaning of life. We do it for ourselves, and we can do it for others. So when you tell a story, understand the point isn’t to tell what happened. Nobody wants the whole story. They want the point.