railroads, highways, and stories of self

These stories that we tell about ourselves, they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to, but once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. Even if the story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life; even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

This week’s rerun This American Life ended with this vignette, written by Michael Lewis. The episode’s title, “How I Got Into College,” is a bit deceptive in light of the story told by Lewis. He interviewed Emir Kamenica, a man who came to America as a Bosnian refugee in high school. In his brand new American English class, Kamenica plagiarized an essay from a book he’d stolen in Bosnia. His student teacher was utterly unaware of his cheating, and she was so impressed with his essay that she got him into a private school on full scholarship. Kamenica later went on to Harvard and is now a faculty member at the University of Chicago. The episode of This American Life hired a private investigator to track down the elusive student teacher/possible angel. It’s a fantastic story, and I encourage you to listen to it the next time you’re scrubbing the bathtub and in need of a serious happiness pick-me-up

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Swoon. Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Not to advocate smoking, but swoon, right? Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

It certainly stuck with me; I haven’t been able to shake this metaphor on the infrastructure of personal stories since I heard it on Sunday. 

Lewis digs into the notion that we create ourselves based on how we tell our own histories. This cognitive railroad is the dominant understanding of who we are, and perhaps more importantly, how we came to be. Take this part of the episode:

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself, but I think there’s a not-so-obvious one. When you insist the way Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you? It’s just very different than if you tell yourself that you deserve all the stuff that happens to you—because you happened to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard. That way of telling your story, well that’s what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the Earth.

Is Lewis suggesting that happiness is simply a choice? Well, consider his earlier language. He compares our personal stories to infrastructure–a complex system that takes years to build, and then signifies a sort of cohesion, a means of letting the rest of society to run smoothly. Once infrastructure is built, it’s so tightly fixed that to completely uproot it is to uproot society.

Our personal histories are similar, I think. How we render ourselves, the cognitive reinforcement of repeating a memory from one frame: this creates a personal infrastructure that cannot merely been restructured by waking up one morning and thinking, “La dee da–I’m going to be happy today!” That inner landscape that grows around the railroads and highways is comparable to how we see the world and, furthermore, how we digest and react to its events. Once that landscape grows thicker and the roots deepen, it becomes even more difficult to reframe whatever history we’ve created for ourselves.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image, I think. Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image.  Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

Lewis’ piece examined composing personal infrastructure on an individual, psychological level, but his metaphor can be expanded to a much broader level. After all, what are the stories we tell ourselves but histories? And histories (no, not a single history) should be understood on a pluralistic level, taking into account perspectives beyond a dominant narrative. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Sure, and as Howard Zinn would tell you, the native peoples have their own story to tell about his arrival in the Americas, too.

In terms of our modern world, one might say that the all-encompassing “Media” has a dominant narrative of culture and society stuck in its hammerlock. Of course, the word media itself suggests a plurality of way to tell stories, which already complicates this idea. In the world of news media, journalists are active in creating and framing every article that they write, every piece that they produce. Who they choose to interview, what questions they choose to ask, what quotes they choose to include–all of these factors are directly influenced by their own biases, the infrastructures set in place by their personal histories. And get this: based on their railroads, they put another bolt in the track for those who read their stories. 

The point? Reporters should, at the very least, be aware of their inner infrastructure, even if they can’t put it under construction. Especially as this summer of discontent ends, marked by shells between Gaza and Israel, ISIS’ mass killings in Iraq, ethnic tension in Eastern Europe resulting in a fatal plane crash in Ukraine, and the shooting an unarmed black teenager right here in Missouri, it becomes more and more obvious that these personal infrastructures have consequences on a global scale.


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