‘If you ever feel frightened, tell yourself a story and you won’t be afraid any more’. This was the advice of a father to his young son during the darkest days of World War II during the blitz on London. The father in the recent BBC dramatisation of the Wilson 'family' was secret agent Major Alexander Wilson who worked for MI6. Wilson was a fantasist who sired seven children in four ‘marriages’ and wrote some successful novels. Reality and fantasy became confused, it seems, in both his fiction and his life. Today his extended family are still trying to get to the truth about who this enigma really was. One of his sons, Dennis, now 74, says ‘All we want to know is the truth’. But the security services are still unwilling to make his file public even after 70 years.
The most high-profile drama in the UK this week has been the continuing Brexit saga. Unprecedented and fevered happenings in Westminster. The Prime Minister, still in her job (just), has opponents opposite, behind, to the left, to the right. More drama but we are still no nearer any resolution of Brexit. It is a national crisis where everyone has their own narrative.
Politicians on both sides tell stories of terrible consequences for the British economy, for law-making, for immigration, for the Union itself if the other side wins eventually. Project fear stories are far from being the monopoly of one particular side. Inevitably, not only politicians but we, the general public, the voters of all shades of opinion, are telling ourselves stories, very simplified stories…to allay our fears for the future. And fact and fiction mingle inseparably together.
We all do it all the time. We all have long-held narratives which explain the world and our place in it. They are usually over-simplified and reflect quite well on ourselves. And we live by them. Politicians do it. Religious people do it. Families do it. Christmas is a prime time for digging up ‘shared myths’ in families. People do not see each other very often have time to get into lazy thinking about each other. It’s easy to resort to binary simplification of each other’s behaviour. ‘He is always….she never… they’re just…?’
So if we feel disturbed this Christmas, maybe we should try resorting to the age-old practice of telling ourselves a story - but with care. The challenge for us all is to make sure it is – as best as we can judge – a true story. That may be a bit painful if it calls us to re-examine the stories on which we have relied for a long time. It takes courage to face the tension in our lives between our carefully-constructed fictions and a less convenient and often less palatable truth.
Sometimes, of course, the ‘new story’ can be uncomfortable at first and then turn out to be the beginning of something really amazing. If the gospel stories are true rather than a fiction, that is exactly what was happening around Nazareth and Bethlehem two thousand years ago. And the first thing the tellers of the new story said was, 'Don't be afraid'!