Subtext is an implicit meaning in language that doesn’t match what is said or written. It’s what lies beneath the words we use. We use subtext all the time whether we know it or not. Let’s take a familiar example. Let’s say your partner tries on a new outfit. It gives you great pause. She/he asks you the dreaded question, “Well, how does it look?” You freeze for what seems to be an eternity as you fear for your life and then croak, “Uhh . . . you know . . . what’s most important is whether you like it, honey-goo-goo!” She/he then storms away vowing never to talk to you again because what you were really saying is that the outfit sucks and she/he looks terrible in it.
Putting my lame effort at humor aside, in this blog I’m going to use subtext in a much broader sense. I want to explore what lies beneath the surface of the people we see. Take any space where people congregate, whether it’s at home, in the office, or on a street corner, you see physical manifestations of people: what they look like, from their facial features to what they’re wearing. If you see me on a street corner in the summer, you see a tanned male, about five feet, nine inches in height weighing about 145 pounds, very shiny dark brown hair (the result of massive amounts of styling gel), looking to be in his early 50’s (the new 60’s), using a cane, with plastic leg braces showing beneath the pants cuffs, thin forearms with atrophied hands exposed in a short-sleeved shirt, and walking with a knee-locked gait. You can populate that street corner with all sorts of people, from a weathered person who looks to be homeless carrying a cardboard sign that says “please help me, God bless,” to a twenty-five-year-old African American woman in a neon Nike outfit listening to Mozart with her wireless earbuds as she jogs in place waiting for the light to change.
What we see on that street corner is the surface, what may be the least important and least interesting aspect of life. What lies beneath what we see is far more important and much more compelling, that is, the life narratives that inform who we are as human beings. And even more compelling are the webs of interactions among human beings that create and shape the narratives. Taking my narrative as an example, when I was in my early 20’s I contracted Gullain-Barré Syndrome, an auto-immune illness that paralyzed me and left me “disabled” for life. Of course that’s a very important marker in my life. But my life narrative is informed in part by how that fact of my life triggered all interactions with other human beings with their own narratives.
Think of it this way: Let’s say you can view my physical transformation through a camera, morphing from a young man jogging down a country road in Bloomington, Indiana to a substantially paralyzed man a year later sitting in a wheelchair that’s parked in a hallway of a rehabilitation hospital. You see nothing else through the lens. If that physical transformation is all that we would ever see in the existence of time, that would be, well, boring. It wouldn’t be a life narrative. The only way to capture my life narrative is to explore my interactions with other human beings after the fact of my physical transformation, from my interactions with physical therapists for years after my transformation, to those with my ex-spouse and three children, to the countless students I’ve taught as a law professor, all of these human beings with their own narratives. And as we interact, our life narratives are altered, sometimes in subtle ways that might not be immediately perceptible and sometimes in profound ways, perhaps an epiphany that hits you after a simple exchange of words with that homeless person on the corner.
So when you see me, or the homeless person, or the jogger on the street corner, the subtext is what lies beneath the surface of what you see.
It’s what counts.
It’s our life narratives.
This blog will uncover them.