I once forced my students to read John Barth’s story “Click” and it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself and the worst thing I did to a group of 18 to 21 year olds who barely even knew who was the current Vice President of the United States. I asked a class that very question, once. No one could tell me the answer except for the kid from South Korea who couldn’t use commas correctly.
Daniel Dennett’s Center of Narrative Gravity is a bit complex, but I’ll try and sum it up to you the way I understand it. If there is another way, please let me know. I enjoy learning. I’ll explain it using my life as an example.
When I was in high school, I found a group of people that cared about what I cared about and enjoyed reading and thinking. I began to listen to the music they listened to and dress the way they dressed and acted the way they acted. I wrote a story called, “Jarvis Slacks as a teenager.” I was the main character, with tons of supporting characters and one, central drama. I wanted to fit in. I wrote this in my head. I went to poetry slams and enjoyed what I heard and saw and decided to act like the people on the stage, to do as they did. I wrote a new story in my head called “Jarvis Slacks: Poet.” The central drama was that I wanted to be good at it. Once that drama was fulfilled, I moved to another and another and another. The Center of Narrative Gravity dictates that our lives are nothing but stories we create for ourselves. Jarvis Slacks the Grad student. Jarvis Slacks the boyfriend. Jarvis Slacks the rejected lover. These were just stories I created. And I moved from each one once I realized that one story no longer fit. Jarvis Slacks the Nighttime columnist had to end once I moved to Washington D.C. He became Jarvis Slacks, the adjunct English Teacher. I’ve dressed and acted according to the life I want to live. I tuck in my shirt and shave and wear a watch and wear clean shoes all because I want to be like the people I see who tuck in their shirt and shave and wear a watch and clean their shoes. The term “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is not that far-fetched.
I bet you think that I am silly, that I shouldn’t do this and that you, of course, don’t do this.
We all do this, and you are lying to yourself if you say you don’t. We all created a story for ourselves, and we try and fit into the narrative by doing certain things. And we create a new story when reality doesn’t fit the fantasy we want. We all do this. And this isn’t a bad thing.
Sometimes we can’t hide our past stories. Sometimes that have lingering marks.
At the end of every semester, I let my students ask me any question they want. They ask how old I am, what my favorite sport is, etc. Basic stuff. One that is becoming more and more frequent is “Why do you have tattoos?”
“I wanted them,” I say.
But other professors don’t have tattoos.
“I know a few professors and they all have tattoos.”
But we can’t see their tattoos. We can see your tattoos.
“I can see why that could bother you. But it shouldn’t.”
Are you getting more tattoos?
“I’ll probably get another one this summer, hopefully.”
“I have a few ideas.”
What do your tattoos mean?
“They don’t mean anything, really. They are things I’ve seen or thought would look cool. That sums it up.”
They have to mean something, they always say.
“No they don’t,” I say.
Everything means something, they say.
And they are right. If I were writing a short story, every sentence, every scene, would have relevance to the overall narrative of the story. Nothing would be wasteful. Nothing would be not needed. In front of them, I think for a few moments. I try to phrase my words carefully, because the young of this world listen to everything a person says. And they remember.
“I think my tattoos remind me of the person I used to want to be,” I say. “This angry guy who thought that revolution was needed and wanted to fight the man and punch cops and run the streets and spray paint walls and, you know, completely anti-establishment. I’m still that guy, and my tattoos remind me of that. The one’s you see, the most recent tattoos, I guess that’s a reaffirmation. My comment to my old self. The old Jarvis Slacks. He’s still relevant. But I think I have a better chance of changing the world by teaching. I don’t want to influence anyone. But I know for a fact, I absolutely know, that education solves problems. All the lies and racism and mistrust and prejudice, that all goes away when you receive a proper education. If I can do that, if I can change the world that way, then I think that’s a good thing for me to do. That’s a good role. But my tattoos remind me that I always didn’t think that way. Maybe I won’t always think how I think now.”
That’s why I have tattoos.