The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

I am always surprised to discover a book, film, album, painting, or any other piece of art that I have been unaware of and which immediately seems to reflect my thoughts and feelings about my place and the place of others in the world. Often this is through an examination of personal interests or obsessions I have. The 2016 film ‘Arrival’ for example hits my personal sweet spot by virtue of being a sci-fi film with themes based around the nature of love, time, and the complexity of language. The visually and emotionally arresting examination of those things satisfied me partly because of the visuals, the music, and the performances but also because it examined its storytelling themes in a way that made sense to me. The film, in all its brilliance, was a mirror to my own, admittedly less well developed, thoughts and feelings and I could not love it more for that.

Tim O’Brien’s book ‘The Things They Carried’ does something far more unexpected and perhaps even more miraculous: It tells me things I was not aware I knew, believed, or understood before I started reading and it does this in a language that comes straight from horror and trauma to create magic and miracles on the page.

On the surface, the book is a series of stories about the Vietnam War, about loss of life, about inhumanity, pain, and the guilt that is the inevitable consequence of all these things. There is much more though. Humanity is at the heart of each story and that makes war the ideal backdrop since, sadly, there are few things more human than war and its unwavering ability to create trauma from tragedy. The book is about the things we do to keep going when we endure such tragedies and above all it is about stories and their power to help us navigate through the worst moments life and humanity can offer.

Truth and memory are the ways that we generally deal with any traumatic event or events and the stories we tell from the remnants of those things are what make us both who and how we are as people. They are our coping mechanisms. The things we hang onto to keep ourselves going and to find our way through the worst of days. As O’Brien makes clear, far more eloquently than me, stories are a way of preserving memories and of distancing from them, the way of carrying what has already been lost to us.

For me the real revelation, within my own mind-set of healing, growth, and redemption came in the book’s examination of truth. ‘Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth,’ O’Brien writes, and those words and his reasoning helped me understand more about myself. In the moment, we only see our singular perspective, which is a version of the truth but is obviously incomplete. In moments of heightened emotion that perspective is unlikely to be clear or entirely accurate anyway. Stories allow us to find other ways of viewing these events with a more objective distance that can include our own individual truth to create something more; a true preservation, or resurrection of what we might have lost or even left behind but which we still carry; something closer to the actual truth, which exists less because it is what we want and more because it is what we need.

Memory is not enough to take us forward from the site of trauma because our own subjective reality is too much like an echo chamber designed to imprison us. Memory can be shaped in ways made more for torture than enlightenment and that changes the way we view ourselves. By looking past compromised subjective memories we have the chance to embrace greater truths that exist beyond regret and guilt and find a way out of the echo chamber to embrace a life closer to what we truly deserve.

Each of us are more than just the sum of our mistakes and our pain. We are our own and other stories combined then remixed, reread, and retold. That has value and will always have value for as long as human beings exist in all our beautiful, terrible, calm, anxious, happy, sad, perfectly imperfect ways.

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