The American writer and critic, John Gardner, once said that there are only two plots in all of literature - you go on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Perhaps a bit simplistic, but if it's true, given that literature is a reflection of the society in which it is written, could it be that there are only two plots in people's lives as well?
This week's reflection is about the plot of our lives, how much time we spend on a chosen journey, and how much time we spend waiting for something to happen....
I read the John Gardner quote in the introduction to The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor. As Mary Morris says, because women, prior to the second half of the twentieth century, were largely denied travel, they were left with the only other option - waiting for a stranger. Hence the plots of Jane Austen novels, where young women sat at home doing embroidery, desperately hoping that some dashing young steed would appear and change their lives forever. Put that way, it's a short step to assume that journeying is better than waiting.
Although it looks, on the face of it, that women had far fewer choices than men in past times, men had, in many ways, little more freedom than women. The imperative to earn a living and take care of a wife and children is its own kind of prison, as is the need to be 'a man' in the traditional sense, tough, infallible, and always knowing what to do. Perhaps it's because we all have more freedom now - freedom to travel, to work or not work, to marry or divorce, to plan families, to be religious or not religious, to dress how we please - that we have made a God out of individuality and the act of setting our own path.
When I first started writing this tip, a couple of weeks ago, I wondered if perhaps as a society we still waited more than was healthy, especially women. Otherwise why so many financial coaches use as their stock phrase: 'A man is not a financial plan.'? It is still the case that men own 80% of the world's
wealth, women still have children and the fastest route to wealth for a woman is still to marry it. But putting money aside, as I started to look at modern lives I began to wonder if we journey far too much? In a society where people are valued mainly for what they achieve, the pinnacle of a wonderful life seems to involve starting from A and getting to a much better place, B. The better place usually means the right job, the right partner, the right amount of money, the right house, car and holidays and so on. But maybe this is not the journey that is going to produce happiness, which in the end is what we're all after, and it takes a stranger to show us that?
It's probably the coach in me, but I absolutely love stories where strangers come to town. The idea of catalysts operating in people's otherwise dreary lives is unendingly exciting. One of my all-time favourites is Mary Poppins, where a magical nanny arrives in an ailing household, where father works too hard, mother is powerless and children feel unloved, and metaphorically throws the whole family into the air before withdrawing quietly while all the pieces fall down into a much happier formation. That's what strangers in books always do - they change the way people see themselves and their lives, by modelling a different way of living.
The trouble is that we're not always open to strangers coming to town. 'Why is everyone so confoundedly cheerful?' says the father In Mary Poppins, exasperated by the new atmosphere in his house. People offer us a new way of looking at things and we're so entrenched in our own perspective that we don't even notice. Or we do notice and feel unsettled by the threat to our status quo and immediately slap it down. So unsettling is the threat that a lot of famous strangers have been put to death - Socrates and Jesus to name but two. The first people to say the world was round were ridiculed, dissenters from religion in the Middle Ages were burnt at the stake, Darwin was vilified and ostracised. When David Cameron did his 'hug a hoodie' speech, he was drowned out by scathing laughter and has hastily reverted to the more familiar 'hang 'em, flog 'em' perspective. We're very attached to our journeys, once we've set them, and woe betide anyone who holds up a signpost in a different direction.
Much of that resistance is due to fear - fear of the unknown and fear of failure.
"We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. " John W. Gardner
1. What are your three favourite stories? They may be true or fictional, books or films, or simply those that you've heard by word of mouth. What is it about the plot that excites, inspires, interests, or moves you? If you had to assign the plots of each of those stories to 'going on a journey' or 'a stranger comes to town', what would they be?
2. What kind of balance do you have in your life between journeying as opposed to watching and waiting? Does it feel like you're always on your way somewhere, or do you spend a lot of time wishing and waiting for something or someone to happen in your life?
3. Have any strangers arrived in your life recently? It might be an actual stranger, or it might be an experience, or a book, or an opportunity, or a conversation, or a programme on television. If so, what kind of welcome did you give them?
'Sometimes people stumble across the truth, and most pick themselves up and carry on as if nothing has happened.' Winston Churchill.
Look out for strangers this week....