There’s a concept in every form of storytelling known as the unreliable narrator. It basically means the person telling the story has been compromised and can’t fully be trusted. Oh, examples you say? (Spoiler Alert: I’m about to reveal some big twists. So if you haven’t seen Fight Club or read “The Catcher in the Rye” yet, then, “spoiler alert,” you’ve been living under a rock for the last 13 years. C’mon!)
In Fight Club, you get about three quarters of the way through the movie before you realize Brad Pitt is actually Edward Norton, just with a cooler jacket and better abs. Or think back to when you read “The Catcher in the Rye” in high school and only in the last chapter did you find out Holden Caulfield was crazy the whole time. Or when this girl tells you The Notebook is really sad and you’re going to cry and then you watch the whole thing and it turns out nothing is sad because they end up together…or something like that. It shakes you up a bit. You have to go back and decipher what was really true in it all. So Edward Norton blew his own apartment up? And is that why people think I’m cool if I namedrop “The Catcher in the Rye”? And are all girls unreliable narrators, or just that girl?
Another Spoiler Alert: We’re all unreliable narrators in our own lives. That’s just the way life is. It doesn’t mean we’re liars necessarily; it just means we can’t be objective and distanced from our own emotions and desires. The way we perceive, understand and react to the world around us is completely dependent upon our emotions, our experiences (or lack thereof) and the fact that we can only get inside our own heads and not anyone else’s. We’re all unreliable, and some are more unreliable than others.
For example, if you ask a friend why they broke up with their significant other and their answer is, “Well, he/she is just a [insert enthusiastic curse word],” then they’re probably a little unreliable on the subject. Or if you ask a friend in a fraternity or sorority how they did in rush this year and they answer, “We totally destroyed everyone else. Best pledge class ever!” they’re probably a bit unreliable too. Or if a friend uses the phrase “YOLO” for whatever reason, even sarcastically, they are 100 percent unreliable and you should probably re-evaluate how you choose your friends.
So if we’re all unreliable narrators, why does it even matter? That is a fantastic and conveniently timed question that I just incepted into your brain. There are some major benefits when we remember our viewpoint isn’t the only viewpoint, and probably isn’t even the most accurate viewpoint. The only thing we can ever be sure of about our unreliability is that it will always be unreliable to an extent. So the best we can do to minimize our own bias is to understand it as fully as possible.
When we acknowledge we are unreliable and our objectivity has been compromised, we stop supposing the intentions of others and start focusing on our own. If I get one of those lovely passive-aggressive Stanford emails that I feel is attacking me, it’s really easy, and even fair according to my unreliability, to shoot a less-passive, more-aggressive email back at the person who is trying to hurt me. But, if I acknowledge that I am emotionally biased because I feel threatened, then I can entertain the possibility that my emotions are reading negativity into the email and it may not be there at all. Knowing my gut reaction may be wrong, I can respond more patiently and constructively.
This allows for more grace when dealing with others because our conception of “fairness” becomes closer to the truth. Because I can only know my side of the story and my intentions, I’m really only working with half a deck. I can do my best to imagine or assume what the other person intended or experienced, but I’ll probably end up selling them short. Either way, even if I can fabricate a complete understanding of the situation, it’ll always be half-invented, and fairness based on only half-truths isn’t fair at all. This forces us to have real authentic conversations, discussions and even confrontations with each other. It allows us to focus on our own shortcomings rather than that of others, and to treat each other with humility and grace. And that is the truth.
If you want to find out just how unreliable Chase is, or you are still angry he spoiled Fight Club (or The Notebook) for you, email him at ninjaish “at” stanford “dot” edu.