Chiang, Julian, and the Story of Our Lives

​”Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” Ted Chiang closes The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate with these simple yet profound words, wrapping up a nested set of time travel tales in a radically different – and radically human – way.

​This lesson is at the core of emotional and spiritual health. For the characters, it was gained through heartache and regret, making it a message for all people, in all times, regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof. We cannot move forward into the future as healthy, whole individuals unless we have looked honestly at the past, not seeking to erase it but to integrate it, owning the hurts we’ve caused and facing the hurts inflicted upon us. But we can’t stop there. We must proceed to repent (or turn from a hurtful way and toward a better one), find atonement (reconciliation, restoration, or “at-one-ment” in Richard Rohr’s wording). And both give and receive forgiveness. That is all we can do with our past, but that is enough.

​I’ve been thinking a lot about Chiang’s stories, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, for the past few months. Both stories revolve around wrongs done in the main characters’ past that have direct and dramatic impact on their present and future, and­ – to my mind at least – they have a clear connection to an idea found in Julian of Norwich, St. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and others: that sin – or hurt in the case of these stories – is behovely or coveniens.

​These two words essentially mean that something “‘fits’, it is ‘just so’ and that there is something it fits with.”[1] Theologian Denys Turner writes that:

the understanding of the conveniens within high medieval theology was of what we might call a ‘narratival’ kind, or perhaps equally, of an ‘aesthetic’ kind. Think of it this way: the conveniens, that which is ‘behovely’, possesses not a law-like intelligibility – of that kind which one provides when explaining something against the background of the causal mechanisms and sequences which generate it, but rather that which you provide for a particular event, or kind of event, when you provide a place for it within a particular individual’s story. It is conveniens, therefore, not on account of being explained by a universal and timeless causal hypothesis, but on account of its fitting within a narrative bound by the particularities of time and place. We grasp the convenientia of an event when we grasp how it is ‘just so’ that it should happen that way, that ‘just so’ being something which we see when we have got hold of the plot which makes it just right that it should happen thus.[2]

​So, if one of the people of Tivland from The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling were to explain this concept, they would say that sin – or the hurts in our past – are mimi rather than vough. It is right in the narrative of our lives, it fits just so, and attempting to erase it would be attempting to erase part of the story of our lives (and speaking of Story of Your Life, isn’t this also the key insight about time that Louise gains from the heptapods?). The hurt fits within our narrative so that removing it, even if we could, makes our story senseless. Every piece, every person, every action taken or not taken shapes the person we become. As Turner continues to say, “[E]ven if everything in a narrative could have, logically, been otherwise, when we say of what does happen that it happened convenientius, we say, because we see, that it was just right that it should happen so, and not otherwise. It ‘fits’. There is a plot to it. Its contingency is not that of the arbitrary.”[3]

​In other words, hurt and pain fit in the plot of humanity’s story, but that does not mean things had to be this particular way. There is no element of logical necessity to sin. In this sense, reality is, by definition, conveniens because it is the story we – or the characters in Chiang’s stories – are living in.

​Julian of Norwich asks the question of why things are this way, but calls it folly: “in my folly, I had often wondered . . . why, through the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented; for then, it seemed to me, all would have been well.”[4] Julian’s folly exists in believing that only by preventing the beginning of sin could all have been well. The problem in Julian’s thinking was the belief that only in a sin-free world could all things be well instead of seeing “that in whatever world God has created, ‘all manner of thing would be well’; consequently, in a world in which there is sin, in which sin is inevitable, all can be well too, and sin’s inevitability is part of the picture, or if you like, part of that plot, of all manner of thing being well.”[5]

Turner believes that this “is the theological meaning of ‘behovely’ and of conveniens: that sin is ‘behovely’ means that sin is needed as part of the plot – or, if you like, that the plot needs sin.”[6] Clearly, there is no plot to Chiang’s stories without the hurt the characters experienced, and Chiang helps us to see that the same holds true for the story of each individual human life. He narrates stories that help us grasp the reality that our inability to change the past, as he says in the story notes for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, isn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.

Turner proceeds to explain that in Julian’s thinking “it is only if we know that everything that happens, for good or ill, is part of the plot which God has scripted, that we can know that it is conveniens that it did happen.”[7]Even if, we cannot or do not want to say that life is following a script, that does not change the fact the life has happened in the particular way it did and no other. We will remain forever stuck in regret over the past or trapped in the malleability of our memory if we cannot honestly grapple with the past in the clear light of day.

It follows for Turner’s reading of Julian, and applies to these two stories from Chiang, that “the amount and intensity of sin in the world is exactly right, exactly as it should be, conveniens, ‘behovely’: none of it necessary, all of it freely done, and all of it part of the plot, all of it part of what was intended.”[8]

When we look at the world in this light, look at our lives, we are empowered to see along with The Truth of Fact’s narrator that “The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.” We are freed up to say – and honestly mean – “if you think I’ve been less than honest, tell me. I want to know.”

In light of all this, what else can we do with our past but repent, atone, and forgive? That’s all we can do, but it’s enough. 

Story of Your Life is available in Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. You can find The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling in his collection, Exhalation. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate appears in both collections.

[1] Denys Turner, “‘Sin Is Behovely’ in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love,” Modern Theology 20, no. 3 (2004): 409.

[2] Turner, 415–16.

[3] Turner, 416.

[4]  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 74 (LT 27).

[5] Turner, “Sin Is Behovely,” 418.

[6] Turner, 418.

[7] Turner, 418.

[8] Turner, 419.