Just a brief thought today about what I am coming to call “personal canon.” It might seem an odd topic–or, perhaps, a normal topic oddly worded, but, to be honest, it is still a “thought in development,” so hopefully you will bear with me.
Most of us are probably familiar with the word “canon” in our readings about the Bible, as in the biblical canon is the collection of works that are believed to be authentic and authoritative–or “canonical.” However, the word admits to usage outside of discussions of the Bible, such as in sci-fi franchises. For instance, with a franchise such as Star Trek, which has produced eleven movies so far (the twelfth is coming out next summer, apparently), practically countless books, a cartoon series, and story-based video games–let alone fan fiction–those who are “true fans” want to know which stories are “canon”–that is, which ones should be considered “true” and part of the franchise’s universe, such that any canonical additional stories must take into account those canonical stories that were written before them and can’t contradict them. Other, non-canon stories can differ from other stories as much as they like. (Star Wars fans have not had as complicated a time as Trekkies, since their favorite franchise has not had as long to develop a vast amount of novels, but the new Disney-produced movies may pose a challenge as they will likely establish a new line of canon after the six previous Star Wars movies that will differ from the novels that had been considered canon up to this time.)
“Canon” is, in that sense, the “official tale” or “authorized story or set of facts.”
So, that said (why did I say it would be a “brief” thought today?), what do I mean by “personal canon”? I’m speaking of our individual efforts to weave a narrative tale for ourselves that we take to be true and by which we judge the truthfulness of other tales. For instance, one might be a aficionado of the American Civil War and have, in your mind, a working “canon” of how it progressed and what influences were responsible for what effects over the course of the war. Then, when you encounter new information, you compare it to the canon you’ve established: Does it fit your canon or not? If not, we tend to want to reject the idea outright or to accept it only with modification. If it fits our canon, then the information is assimilated more easily–even possibly reinforcing the canon.
If we’re rejected the information “as is” due to its disagreement with our personal canon, then we’re either right or wrong to do so… If we’re right, then no harm done in most cases. If we’re wrong, then we’ve missed a chance to revise our canon–to see that, just maybe, we don’t have things right after all.
What concerns me, though, isn’t so much our opinions about the Civil War. What concerns me is my interactions with others.
It is not uncommon (in my experience, at least) to see grudges continued on and on and on out of problems with personal canons: “This is the way it was, and there is no telling me that it was some other way!” And sometimes it seems that the individual who will not budge works hard at maintaining his or her belief in his personal canon even when ample evidence mounts that the canon is wrong.
Actually, I am reminded of the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas, with whom I identify a bit. When ten of his closest friends try to explain to him that they have seen the risen Christ, he refuses to modify his personal canon, part of which includes the belief that dead people just don’t come back to life again:
Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)
I really do sympathize with Thomas, here. As they surely relate to him the details of their encounter with Jesus–the sights, the sounds, His specific words–he is willing to say that each and every one of these ten men is, essentially, either insane or lying, rather than to accept that he is simply wrong about the matter. (David Hume would be proud.)
And I’ve seen the same in personal grudges and disputes…
- “I’m upset because they said X.”
- Who said X?
- “A, B, and C said X.”
- But I just spoke with A, B, and C, and all of them say that they didn’t mean to say X at all–they were trying to say Y. Perhaps you just misunderstood what they meant.
- “Well, they are lying now. They said X and meant it the way I know they mean it.”
In other words, “I’ve established my personal canon, and there is no going back.”
(By the way, any resemblance between A, B, & C and certain children whose last names rhyme with “Schmith” is completely not coincidental. Resemblance to anyone else in your life, on the Internet, working in talk radio, or staring at you from your mirror may or may not be also. I will let you make that call!)
I am thankful to have had my tendency to build personal canon thrown in my face when I was 19 years old by my college roommate. We were in our beds chatting before falling asleep and he said something with which I disagreed and told him so–not rudely (at least I don’t think), just making conversation. He then, after a brief pause, said, “You know Wally, when someone says something you disagree with you don’t even consider what they said–you just figure it’s wrong and then keep thinking what you were thinking.” (Or, at least something to that effect.)
Of course, my first thought was, “That’s not true!” But, hopefully realizing that I was, perhaps, validating the very accusation that was presented to me, I resisted that thought and considered what he said. And, sure enough, as I examined myself that evening I found, annoyingly enough, that he was right–that is how I tended to react. I really didn’t give the comments of others enough weight if they obviously challenged my personal canon.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every such comment should be given equal weight. If anyone ever comes up to me and says that they just saw Elvis dressed like a leprechaun and chasing Bigfoot while riding a diamond-studded unicorn, I will be unlikely to exert any effort at all in examining my personal canon to revise it for this new “fact.” (Everyone knows Elvis rides UFOs, not unicorns.)
But when it comes to relationships or what I “know” to be true about others and what they’ve said and done or even thought and felt, I must be willing to see them differently than I do at any given moment. I have to be able to revise my personal canon, developed over my history with them, because–last I checked–I am human, and making mistakes is something that we humans are good at, even over long periods of time.
Marriage teaches this, or at least it should. We think we really know this person we’ve been married to for X years, and then they go and surprise us! Sometimes good, sometimes bad — I know that I have given my Beautiful Wife plenty of examples of both over the last 20 years. But if I can still be surprised by someone whom I know better than anyone else on the planet, is it possible that I’ve made mistakes in my effort to understand anyone else? To be sure, I have and do.
I hope God will protect me from getting so married to my own personal canon that when reasonable evidence arrives to let me know I should revise it I end up refusing and risking damage to my relationships, my character, or even those around me in the future. Our personal canons should reflect reality, and that will take a willingness to revise them from time to time. Sometimes that thing I think A, B, and C meant really isn’t what A, B, and C meant.