Earlier this year I appeared on a television morning show to discuss the many scars that crisscross my body. The scars are a result of several childhood misfortunes, and I was invited to talk about how my scarred body has affected my life – my sense of self, the choices I’ve made, the opportunities I’ve had, even my personality. I had a brief slot to try and unpack my complex story. Because I’d acquired my scars in quite exotic – to Australian audiences – circumstances, having been born in the Soviet Union, we spent most of the time rehashing those tales. Soon, one of the hosts realised we were running out of time and asked me the final question – one that I expected, albeit not in the form it arrived: “So now you accept your scars, don’t you?”
Well, yes and no. In some ways or at certain times, and not in others. My truth is so complicated – just as many people’s relationships to their bodies are complicated – that recently I even wrote a book about it. I tried to fold the various shades of feeling into my answer, but under the pressure of time and the spotlight, did so lamely.
My scars and how I feel about them, though, aren’t what I want to discuss. Rather, I’m interested in what my television misadventure exemplifies: the current appetite for a certain type of ending, the redemptive kind.
In our hyper-therapeutic, ultra-positive times, no matter what tragedy befalls us, no matter how tough life might become, when we share our tales the expectation is that by their end we “overcome adversity”, find “closure”, master the art of “acceptance”, even experience “personal growth”. I see this discourse everywhere: in online support groups, professional advice, everyday conversations and, well, television interviews.
This comes as no surprise. With environmental and other human-engendered catastrophes never far from our consciousness now, and quasi-dystopian visions becoming a routine part of news reportage, the idea of an unresolved ending rings particularly sinister. And popular culture has always capitalised on the anxieties of its time. Today, on the screen and on the page, we are saturated with so-called “inspirational narratives” – both fictional tales and, even more ubiquitously, real-life stories. Stories of grief, of self-destruction, of hitting the lowest low, of encountering the heart of darkness. Yet in the end their protagonists always emerge into bright sunshine, triumphant and in control of their new circumstances (read: fully accepting of their disfiguring scars).
I can be a sucker for such stories too. I think happy endings can be good for us, can render reality more palatable, more manageable. They leave us with hope, and hope has become increasingly hard to get. What bothers me, though, is the certain smug brand of happiness often implied within redemptive stories, where the heroes inevitably become sage through their hardships (and ready to offer their new knowledge to audiences for a suitable price). The impression is that if we can just be astute enough to learn our lessons, then adversity always brings wisdom, and this wisdom is whole and perfect and lasts forever.
Perhaps it was Saint Augustine who first presented us with this model for narrating troubling personal experiences: I’ve sinned, or been through terrible misfortunes through no fault of my own, but eventually I found the right path, and now let me tell you how you can get there too. What is new is the dominion of these narratives in our storytelling landscape. And this bothers me even more.
In order to make sense of our lives, we need to both tell and consume stories continuously. Storytelling matters. It shapes us just as we shape our narratives. A society in which redemptive tales predominate has little room for other expressions of human experience – doubt, setbacks, unredeemable failures – all that stuff that resides at the core of our existence. Such kneejerk photoshopping can give rise to unrealistic expectations – that we can always get over all our difficulties, always recover and, even better, improve. But what if we can’t? Have we then failed? And should we keep these failures to ourselves, as shameful secrets?
I like happy endings, but I also like the humility, and realness, of narratives about defeats. Or partial defeats. Stories where protagonists might be unable to find the benefit in their adversities yet still feel that life is worth living. Or stories where the acquired wisdom is battered, shaky. And what about stories of certain adversities in the face of which it seems immoral to think of ourselves as becoming wiser, because such thinking can diminish their magnitude? In reality, shadowy, messy tales like mine are probably more common than those with a redemptive arc, yet they often remain on the margins of our cultural conversations. Just as mine did, since I found it impossible to articulate on the television its shades and shadows.
What I wish I’d have said were the last words in my book: “Mine isn’t the popular ‘I’ve been through hardships and now I resolved them all’ narrative in the tradition of St Augustine. But neither is it a nihilistic tale. Something has shifted. I’ve come to understand, to admit, that the ways my scars have shaped me are not all dark. Are my gains then, as I see them, worth being scarred? Right now, as I’m writing these last words a summer’s brilliant sunshine is pouring into my window and a sea of beach-going girls is passing by in their short sarongs, and all I can do is echo Socrates. All I know is that I still don’t know.”
• Lee Kofman is the editor of Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings (Ventura) and the author of Imperfect (Affirm)