I’ll admit that I don’t know much about war or death, but I do know something about stories, which is what Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried seems mostly about. This book tells the story of a soldier in the Vietnam War.
While I didn’t want to know if these stories were true, I did want to know if there was even a nugget of truth in them. Most of the way through the book, I felt that I could trust the narrator whom I assumed to be Tim O’Brian. I was starting to believe this was a straight memoir with the normal embellishments and missing details because of memory lapses or painful moments. Then I hit page 171 where he says “almost everything else is invented”. My initial gut reaction was “is any of this story true? did this guy even go to war in Vietnam?” I kept reading the book, though, even if I had the feeling of being cheated of the truth.
Upon finishing the book, though, I realized that truth isn’t what O’Brian was trying to tell. Anybody can tell the details of being in a war, and to be honest, I don’t think I would have gotten through 233 pages of truth about a war. It’s the story that’s more interesting. The premise of this book is that “stories save us”. O’Brian is showing through this narrative that stories of the war, whether true or fictionalized, are what allow him to move forward.
Even though I haven’t experienced war or much death within my life, I do know the power of stories. He says “stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if your account of an event is entirely true to the event. Don’t misinterpret me; I still believe honesty is the best route in most cases. As O’Brian put it, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others.” The stories we tell ourselves, which are the stories I think O’Brian is referring to, allow us to re-live moments or to live moments that never happened.
I’ll end this thought by saying stories are powerful. Keep dreaming up stories of future events or embellishing past events as a way of finding peace with the past, but don’t ever let someone tell you that the way your life story has unfolded is not dramatic enough to be powerful and inspiring. The very fact that you are alive is inspiring. If you have Christ in your life, your story is more powerful than any fictionalized drama. Tell your story, first to yourself and then to others.
(Possibly in the future, there may be more thoughts about this book as it marinates in my mind.)