“We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.”
Mary McCarthy, “Characters in Fiction” Partisan Review, March/April 1961
I don’t know the context of Mary McCarthy’s words1 . I’ve tried finding McCarthy’s article from the Partisan Review and I’ve had no luck. I’ve also tried to find someone talking about the context and meaning of McCarthy’s words but I haven’t had any luck with that either. I have had a ton of luck finding posts discussing the post’s author’s view of the quote, which doesn’t help me a ton.
The vast majority of the posts I see the quote in use it basically telling their readers to go out and live as heroes since they are the heroes of their own stories. Not bad advice. Still I believe there is another side to the quote.
I feel like part of the truth found in the quote is that we tend to see ourselves unrealistically within our own lives. We often think the best of ourselves and our actions even when we would think the exact opposite if we saw others commit those same actions.
For example, I have a friend from years ago who would tell stories of things he had done and said. He was sure these were great stories in which he had acted in great ways, but in reality most people around thought his stories showed he had been a jerk. It was ok though because he was our jerk and therefore we knew who he was and loved him no matter what.
As a minister and chaplain I talk with people regularly that think their actions are heroic, yet when I hear them I think the exact opposite. The person who is convinced everyone is against her, when in reality she has just been mean to everyone she knows. The guy who thinks that he is a great listener, and yet you spend 10 minutes with him and he never stops talking. I have an acquaintance who brags about reading over a hundred books every year, yet when I asked him how he did it he says he reads the first and last chapter of books and is able to figure out the rest from that. These people aren’t purposefully lying. They really believe what they say about themselves.
This isn’t just someone else’s problem. It is mine too. I too often view myself as the hero of my own story also. I look at my actions and I am convinced of their inherent rightness. I lie to myself and I believe those lies to actually be true. We look at ourselves through very smeared glasses, and far too often believe we have perfect vision.
I believe this is partially why the Psalmist says “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). The Psalmist recognized that we aren’t very good judges of our own lives because we think we usually think we are the heroes.
- I know Jospeh Campbell also wrote a phrase very similar.