No Surprises

Somewhere in his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle points out that the best stories are always unpredictable but inevitable.  It’s a tricky balance for a writer to achieve.  It means no cheap plot twists just to keep the readers off their balance; it means no deus ex machina to cleave a story’s tangled strings; it means there must be enough clues for the readers  to draw their own conclusions by the end, but not so many that this conclusion is drawn somewhere in the middle of Act III.  When it is done well, there is not a more satisfying story you can write.

I have thought about this off and on since I read Poetics my freshman year in college. It is such a tidy and obvious truism that it seems almost impervious to explanation—it is so just because it is so.  But then one day recently I stubbed my toe, and it all made sense to me.

The toe-stubbing was typical of all my toe-stubbings: I was too busy thinking what I was thinking to notice where I was going and then—and then I wasn’t thinking anymore.  I am not a stoic toe-stubber.  First there is the hopping, and then there is the pounding of the fist on the nearest stable surface, and then the children clear the room, and then the cursing begins.  It was during the cursing phase of the drama that I had my epiphany.  If I stub my toe with enough force, my curses become epic and existential.  I am angry in the way one becomes angry at restaurant management or the government or God.  Someone must pay for my suffering, and yet no one ever does.  But on this day, as I was gearing up for my tirade, I understood who was to blame, and that someone, of course, was me.

Though blame may not be the right word because the “lesson” here was not that I should watch where I was going.  Rather, in its own way, the stubbing of my toe matched exactly what I was feeling in the moment prior to the stub.  I was wound up and agitated, and the collision was merely an extension of the agitation. It was as if I was asking for something, though I didn’t know what, until, unfortunately, I stubbed my toe and I got it.

My life has always felt that way.  Unpredictable, yes, but never surprising.  Every success, every failure, every conflict, every reconciliation—every single event mirrors exactly my own thoughts and feelings of the moment, as if, as they say, I asked and I was given.  Thus the tragic Greek hero’s cry may be directed at the Gods, but in truth, the cry is always for his ears only, wondering not why he was given, but why did he ask.

And that moment of epiphany, that moment of tears and blood when the hero at last meets the true architect of his life—this is always where we leave him, and then us with our “catharsis of pity and fear” as we shuffle home. Yet this is where the story actually begins.  This is where, perhaps, you begin to understand that your life unfolds through you, never at you, and where you might begin to choose more deliberately the path of your life, seeing as you have been choosing it all along already.

So the old Greek was right, and so over the centuries we can never get enough of a really good story that is unpredictable but inevitable, because I don’t believe we can ever hear often enough that, come mutiny or marriage, our lives remain sovereignly our own.

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