Here is one of my favorite games: when I walk into a coffee shop and my eye falls across the newspaper headlines on the stand by the register, I imagine I am in the opening moments of a film and that the camera, too, is lingering there. I imagine how this scene or image might foreshadow what’s coming by the end of the movie, what massive, unprecedented event is about to sweep the world into chaos. Australia and New Zealand diverge over intelligence pact as China tensions mount, or something. BBC World Service headlines while you’re driving, or anything said by a television news anchor as you walk through a room can work equally well.
I can play this game because narrative bestows meaning on everything it touches. A freak weather event might not ultimately amount to much in my real life, even if I do read about it while waiting in line for an espresso. The world probably won’t end in fire or ice a few weeks later, with that headline serving as Cassandra. Life is full of small moments that don’t foreshadow something else, that perhaps don’t even mean anything at all.
In narrative, however, nothing is irrelevant. No film director would pan a camera to the front page of a made-up newspaper she explicitly requested from the props department unless it was going to matter, ultimately, to the story. It’s the artificiality of narrative that renders the meaning.
Life is not narrative, though we often search for meaning or pattern or reason as though it is. As though there is truly no such thing as a coincidence, no event so mundane that it can’t tell us something about who we are and who we’re going to become. And we can persist in this behavior in the face of all sorts of evidence to the contrary. I have watched my father’s life descend into the total incoherence of frontotemporal dementia, and yet I’ve assumed good news was coming because I saw a butterfly, decided I was supposed to be friends with someone because I kept running into them. And here’s the most narrative-driven thing I do: I worry.
When I am falling asleep in the night-quiet of my house and my husband is beside me, already breathing in the even rhythm of sleep, and my children, too, are asleep in their bunk beds on the other side of the wall in a snapshot of total familial peace I wonder: what comes next? If my life were a story, this moment with my cheek against my sleeping husband’s shoulder would be the moment before, the too-good moment. Something else is coming.
Maybe I am just reading the wrong sort of books.
But anyway, I worry. At first passively but then actively, deliberately, because it seems to me there is nothing so effective at preventing an outcome as anticipating it. I can’t recall ever reading a story where someone dies in a car accident after being up all night worrying about dying in a car accident. Far more common is the narrative satisfaction of the unexpected. So I transform any unexpected tragedy, with worry, into the expected. I sap its narrative potential.
I’m aware of how absurd this is, I promise. These sorts of habits lie somewhere beneath reason and aren’t particularly vulnerable to being told they don’t make sense. Which makes me wonder if my worry is indeed a narrative impulse or more a magical one. By magic, I mean the sort of practice one develops when very young and in control of very little that gives one just enough of an illusion of control for life to be gotten on with. If you jump up and down on this particular spot five times, nothing bad can happen after you get into bed. If I ponder this horrible possibility enough, it cannot actually happen.
Perhaps it is both. Narrative is, after all, a form of total control. And even at the most basic neurological level, the process of worry is based on the fact that worry is often worthwhile—that alertness to potential threat can prevent harm.
But what about when it can’t? When the thing about which we worry is of such a complex and transcendent nature that worrying about it is as effective as aiming a slingshot at the moon?
Imagine, for example, a specific moment in my life, if my life were a story. There’s a woman, in her mid-thirties. Her father has died--rather young--a few years before. She has taken a small amount of comfort in the fact that, as terrible as her father’s illness was, frontotemporal dementia isn’t as strongly genetically correlated as some other forms of disease, and the event of slowly losing her father is an event not to be repeated. Her father’s brain has been donated to a university, and in this specific moment, sometime around 11pm on a winter night, the lights in her bedroom already out, she is still awake and reaches for her phone to see an email from her stepmother. It contains the belated report from the university, and despite the lateness of the hour she cannot help but open it to see what it says. And there, sitting in the dark in bed, face luminous in the blue glow from the screen of her phone, she reads DIAGNOSIS: ALZHEIMERS. A very different sort of disease, if manifested in a person as young as her father. One that is given to offspring.
If my life were a story written by someone, what would happen next? I can imagine this moment only as a turning point, the dramatic beginning of a slow slide of inevitability. The bait-and-switch, the sudden reveal. It’s all there. In fact, it was the dramatic, narrative-like nature of the belated discovery that made me feel the outcome in my own life must be inevitable.
If worry has no true magical properties and life isn’t a story, then I usually tell myself that, at the very least, the things I worry about can’t surprise me, should they happen; I shall meet them prepared. But what is lost, in preparation? The idea that my brain might destroy itself two decades from now carries a dread of such enormity that I am grateful, for once, for all the ways life fails to make sense, the way bows remain untied and coherence so often eludes us. For all the things that don’t mean anything, no matter how much it seems they should be worthy of worry.
Catherine Hervey has an MFA from the Sewanee School of Letters. She has written for Books and Culture and The Curator.
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