Upstream Color, one of the more mind-boggling films I saw this year, is a film about the breakdown of narrative. The personal narrative. We’re defined by our jobs or skills; the people we love, loved, or never loved; memories of things we did or never did; want to do; our entire sense of self, in essence, is nothing more than a series of stories we tell ourselves — a narrative — and what Upstream Color explores is what happens when someone takes that narrative away. What happens when you find yourself, all of a sudden, with no memory of who you are?
This post is not so much about Upstream Color as it is about the personal narrative — the series of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
On this week’s episode of This American Life, Michael Lewis tells an incredible story of a Bosnian refugee who’s now a very successful Harvard graduate and who — by his own admission — wouldn’t have been the person he is today had he not stolen a book from a library back in Bosnia. I won’t spoilt. It’s a truly remarkable story, you just have to LISTEN to it.
All these — Upstream Color, This American Life — of course, are just preambles to what I actually want to talk about, which is the story I feel is my own defining moment: That moment without which I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, over looking this beautiful pool, and unnecessarily dragging out a story that I could’ve very well told in a paragraph.
A few days ago I was talking with Rita, my flatmate, about precisely this, and I think it’s amazing how our defining moments both had to do with flunking a class in school. The interesting thing is that when Rita tells the story, she doesn’t consider flunking the class a pivotal moment, instead, she considers meeting a boy — a certain boy — to be the defining moment.
She’s wrong, of course, and I’ll tell you why.
If Rita hadn’t flunked that class, she would’ve graduated that semester. Graduation would be moving back home, away from the college town and back to her parents’. But she didn’t graduate, because she flunked the class, which is how she met the guy at a party in the college town two months after she was suppose to have moved back home. The guy and Rita, they fell in love, and after she finally graduated, the two of them moved to another country to start a new life together. There, Rita met a woman who was into yoga and Eastern religions, and the two of them became very close friends, and after Rita broke up with the guy, this friend convinced her to move to Kuala Lumpur with her and learn yoga from a guru there. That’s how Rita moved to KL. That’s what led her to living with me, to us becoming friends, and her telling me this story and me insisting that her story about a boy is in fact not about a boy.
You see right after my internship, I got a job offer at the place I interned at, but because I flunked a class, I had to go back to school — to retake that one class — and after I finally graduated three months later, that job was no longer on the table. So I applied for another job — the one I have right now — and that’s what led to me moving to Kuala Lumpur, living with Rita, and insisting that her entire life leading to this point was about flunking a class.
There’s a very common saying in personal development — it’s not what happens, it’s how you choose to react. Put another way, it’s not the thing that happened that’s important, it’s the story you choose to tell yourself about it that matters.
The reason I keep insisting that Rita’s pivotal moment — the linchpin of her-life-leading-up-to-the-present, so to speak — is precisely the same reason she keeps insisting otherwise. Flunking a class fits into my personal narrative — it validates the story of me — and having someone, especially someone like Rita, echo my story not only reinforces it, but it also makes me feel a little less lonely.
For me, life is all about making a connection to another human being. Most people, they want to stand out; I want to belong. That’s why I take all those pictures. That’s why I make movies. That’s why I do this.