Commentary on a Storm

Don and I went to lunch today.  Leaving the restaurant, we noticed dark skies to the west — so off we drove to a coffee shop to sit outside and watch the storm sweep in.

It came over the mountains around two o’clock, and it turned them into purple and blue shadows.  While the rain was still far off, the air rose and swirled around the patio of the coffee shop.  But the winds weren’t yet strong enough to drive the sparrows to shelter.  They fluffed and went back to hunting insects on the wooden deck.

By that time, I was thinking of how difficult it is not to see the approach of a storm as an unfolding story.

Story telling is universal to our species.  It is merely human to see events as progressive, as moving towards some outcome or climax.  We do it all the time.   But storms especially lend themselves to story telling, and the brain easily makes a story out of a storm.  Yet not everything in life is so much like a story as a storm.

At times it seems to me that an acquaintance of mine turns her entire life into a story.  It can be subtle the way she does it.  When you ask her how she is doing, she never simply says, “good”, or “fine”, or “bad”.  Instead she always ties her present into her past or into her future to make a continuum.  She says, “I’m better than I was yesterday.  Things are finally improving.”  Or she says, “Things have gotten worse for me.”  Or, in some other way she creates a narrative out of how she’s feeling.

It becomes more evident as you get to know her.  This woman has themes that run through her life like the themes of a novel.  She doesn’t tell you much about herself she can’t tie into one or another of those omnipresent themes. For instance, suppose her car gets a flat tire that day.  A different person might tell you about the flat, what they did to resolve it, and the immediate consequences of having the flat.  But she will focus her narrative on how her flat tire fits into one of her themes — say for example, her financial problems:

A Different Person: “I scraped a curb with my right front tire while turning a corner today.  It made such an awful sound that I immediately pulled over to take a look.  Lo and behold!  The tire was flat. The worse part of it was the bolts were rusted, and merciless to get off.  But I finally got them off and the tire changed.  Of course, by that time I was late to my doctor’s appointment.”

My Acquaintance: “Today, I got a flat tire on the way to my doctor.  There’s just no hope of my affording a new tire now with money tight and all the other bills I can’t pay.”

The tendency to see events as part of a story is very human and most likely present in all of us, but in some of us it is taken to an extreme.   I’ve gathered during the months I’ve known her that when something happens to my acquaintance which she can’t properly fit into one of her themes, she simply ignores it as if it didn’t happen at all.  She often gives me the eerie sense she is more aware of her themes than of the world around her.

For some reason, storms often lead me to think of how difficult it is to live in the present moment. Consciousness is pretty much a commentary on things, don’t you think?  Either a commentary on things in the future that are coming, or a commentary on things in the past that are going.  To some extent, it’s a natural story-teller.

Sometimes the past is only an instant past when our consciousness notices it — so we might think then we are living in the present.  But there is always that lag, no matter how short, between the event and our conscious awareness of it.  The only part of consciousness that lives in the present is consciousness itself.

Assuming all that is true, it is sometimes best not to think too much about the things we wish to experience as they are in the present — experience without the intervention of consciousness and its tendency to impose interpretation and meaning on things.

When the rain began this afternoon, it first came to us wind-blown at a slant in small, warm drops.  That surprised me because the storm looked so violent from a distance, I had formed half an expectation the rain would pour down at once.  That is, I’d been looking forward, as I might look forward when reading a novel, to what would happen next.

Don and I sat in the light rain for a while.  Gray clouds raced overhead, lower than the mountains, and the sparrows were gone by then.  I recall we discussed the future of humanity.   Perhaps we did that to distract our consciousness from turning the storm into something too meaningful.

7 thoughts on “Commentary on a Storm

  1. Lovely post, Paul. A friend of mine who is writing a book about apophatic mysticism sent me a chapter where he discusses the neceessity and pervasiveness of narratives in human consciousness – in order to fully engage with the experience of life (he says) we must be willing to rewrite the greater narrative with every new piece of information. For example, I’ve just looked at a flat close to work – it’s a cute flat with a few major flaws and as many major assets. I’m about to apply for it, and I’m excited, picturing myself living there and decorating it in my mind. But someone else could get the flat – in which case I’ll be thinking of the flaws, thinking “wow, lucky thing I didn’t get that flat – now I can find a better one!” and getting all excited imagining a new flat.

    It sounds like your friend is not only trapped in a single narrative, but it’s a bleak, inflexible and depressing one at that…

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  2. @ Apophatic Attic: My acquaintance indeed seems trapped in her narratives. I strongly suspect she suffers from clinical depression or some similar disorder.

    I also strongly agree that we must be willing to re-write our narratives. But I suspect we can be reluctant to do that to the extent that we feel our narratives create our self-identity.

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  3. I’ve always envied Zen Buddhists for their ability to live in the present. I’ve wanted to experience it, and I’ve come close sometimes. But damn it, I’m a storyteller by trade, and somehow I can’t turn off the narrative part of my brain! Besides, it can be a lot of fun, anticipating and being surprised, retelling the story later, and, as apophaticattic’s friend says in his chapter, rewriting the story in light of new information.

    (Yet another unpublished book I desperately want to read. Grr.)

    But Zen has given me this: the insight to realize when a story’s just a story. And that is what has kept me from ending up like your friend, Paul – it helps me realize that events can happen without having any meaning other than, “Shit happens. It just happened to happen to you, and that’s it.” It’s an amazing feeling, being able to let something go like that.

    I hope she finds a better story to tell, if she can’t find the freedom to let some events just be what they are.

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  4. Dana, I’m not sure anyone can actually turn off at will the narrative part of their brain. But if we can simply observe it — observe it as dispassionately as scientists, without judging it right or wrong, without desire — then it sometimes might turn off of its own accord.

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  5. Pingback: Life’s “What Was That All About?” Moments | Café Philos: an internet café

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