When I was a kid I used to imagine that there was an omniscient author somewhere narrating the events in my life in an enormous novel. I am sure I am not the only one to entertain such a daydream. The 2006 film Stranger than Fiction takes this very idea as its main premise. And in the fields of moral philosophy and theology, the idea that human actions and virtues require a broader narrative context for their intelligibility is one that has been extensively developed and explored. One of the most influential proponents of such a view is the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who presents his argument for it in a chapter of his book After Virtue entitled “Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition.” Among the many astute points in this chapter, a rather simple one stands out as potentially helpful for drawing out a moral interpretation of the lectionary readings for this Sunday. He makes the comment there that
we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please…. We enter upon a stage which we did not deisgn and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each other’s, making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic (2nd ed., p. 214).
MacIntyre’s aim in bringing up this point is to show the complexity of identifying and describing “an action” as such. The intelligibility of actions and the dispositions and patterns that develop from them thus require a broader narrative context of a whole human life.
The point could be taken on a simpler and more practical, level, though. If, in my youthful thought experiment, someone was writing my story as it unfolded, what would be the main theme and central cast of that story? MacIntyre presumes that one is always the protagonist, the “hero” of one’s own life story, and to a certain extent that is undoubtedly true: one can only perceive and act within a world that takes one’s own “I” as its center, as the viewpoint from which all the action unfolds. The bigger question, though, is whether this perspectival constraint necessarily means that one must take themselves as the main character of the story. Is it possible to live in a way such that another (or perhaps many others) become the primary locus of the narrative that constitutes one’s life?
On the one hand, one would not want to concede that their life must inevitably read like an adolescent diary, with almost every sentence—every “act”—beginning with the first-person singular pronoun. On the other hand, perhaps it is unrealistic or even pathological to suppose that one can live a life that is predominantly “de-centered” from the ego or ecstatically absorbed in another. While acknowledging the potentially damaging ends to which distorted understandings of “self-gift” or “self-effacement” may be put, it seems to me readily apparent that such de-centering is a natural aspect of growth in love.
As love grows, the diary of the true lover becomes less first-person and more third-person in character. Over the course of time, as one progresses along this path of growth, the main theme and central cast of one’s story undergoes a similar transformation. It becomes less clear who the hero of the drama really is. Indeed, I would say that you know you have begun truly to love only when the story of your life is no longer primarily about you, when your story becomes inseparable from that of another or others—indeed becomes about that other. Is that not why losing the beloved to death is so devastating? The story your life has become loses its central character! And once you’ve learned to love, you can never really go back to the place where the story is first and foremost about you.
That “de-centering” of one’s own place in the narrative of one’s life can serve as a link connecting the readings for this Sunday. The “worthy wife” is worthy not because of any quantitative worth, but because she is worthy to be entrusted with the gift of one’s very self. She is worthy of this gift because she gives herself away in turn, and not merely as an act of reciprocity but as an act of self-fulfillment. As evidence of this other-centered perspective, the scriptures depict her “reaching out her hands to the poor”. Her husband entrusts everything to her, even and especially his own identity, and this self-gift nourishes her own self-gift, both to him and to the needy. We see here then a picture of the de-centering love which Christians see as the primary characteristic of the inner life of God: the perichoresis or “mutual indwelling” of the Holy Trinity.
Likewise one could read the gospel parable through this lens. It is not the quantitative loss that makes the fearful servant who buries his talents unworthy of the master’s joy. It is his lack of trust, his overriding concern to protect his own interests at any cost. He is not willing to extend himself, to reach beyond the safe confines of the status quo. And as Matthew has Jesus himself say earlier in the gospel, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (16:25). The unworthy servant rather sought maximal security. He was unwilling to be a part of a story he could not control or determine, and in the end he is left to go his own way, to be his own “hero” in a drama that no longer includes the master.
Here we come across the true meaning of “the darkness outside” and “the wailing and grinding of teeth.” It is the state in which one is doomed to be the central actor and ultimate meaning of one’s own story. It is the terrifying possibility of being walled into one’s own loneliness as an isolated ego, to be the sole player in a drama “signifying nothing” except oneself. Or, to quote one of the classic lyrics of Pink Floyd, it is to “exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage.”