Mennonite Heritage Village

Stories: Tales told by idiots?

By Glen Klassen, MHV Board Member

In Shakespeare’s famous play, when Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has just committed suicide, he cries out that his life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He has concluded that the story of his life is just a string of events that has no meaning.

Yes, our lives are just strings of events, one thing after another. But if that were all, there would be nothing to celebrate, nothing of lasting interest, no meaning.

When I was at university in the 60s, it was fashionable to be an existentialist. Sartre and Camus were the heroes. Each person was totally responsible to create his or her own meaning – to create a story from scratch that brings into existence a unique individual, responsible only to self. Even though this extreme individualism now seems silly, it is still alive and well in the current trend toward political libertarianism.

The truth is that our own personal story is just one small part of a thousand interlocking stories. If you saw me riding my bike down Abe’s Hill at full speed with my arms in the air, you might think, “What is the meaning of this?” A full account of my foolhardy activity would involve the invention of the bicycle a hundred years ago, the creation of the hill by a famous former Steinbacher, the complex story of the “arms in the air” gesture, etc., etc. A tiny episode in my private life is entangled with innumerable episodes in the lives of innumerable other people in the very non-private life of my world.

The stories of the pioneers in our area – Catholic Métis, Presbyterian Clearsprings settlers and Hanover Mennonites – are all parts of my personal story and give it meaning. They are stories of people bound together by their active embrace of their history. During the Great Depression these communities survived while “heroic” individualists abandoned their farms.

We continue to celebrate these stories locally in our festivals, our street names, and most explicitly in our museum, Mennonite Heritage Village. And now we are also privileged to share in the experiences of the people who have come here after the pioneer era.

Meaning comes out of stories. We tell them to convey what it’s like to be alive. How did this come to be? Why is that there? How did you survive? Isn’t it nice that the Pistons won? How sad about Aunt Mary! These are not tales told by an idiot; they have preludes, plots, climaxes, and denouements.

We are always acting out of frameworks of meaning that we have been given. For one, we inherit a fully functional language in which we create our own reality with words. Our lives are roles we are playing in institutions established long before we were born. We are sons and daughters, parents, teachers, officers, mentors, believers and bicycle-club members, long after these structures were initially set in place.

It is important for us to keep all these connections alive and to participate in them mindfully. We must know our enveloping stories and pass them on to the next generations.