“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” — The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Our lives are shaped by stories—the stories that inspired us, the stories that changed us.
The stories that made us.
Stories are how we make meaning out of our existence. Our whole lives are a process of creating and understanding our story—the narrative of who we are, where we come from, and what our lives mean.
Some people grow up knowing all the details of how their story began—they know what the day of their birth was like, they know how their parents met and fell in love, they even know the stories of their grandparents and maybe even ancestors who reach deep into the past. They know where they fit in a larger story, but even more importantly, they are often taught that this larger story is a love story—of parents who love them and children borne of love and love that’s been passed on through generations.
But not everyone is that lucky.
Not everyone knows how their story began.
And Randall Pearson was one of those people.
Randall’s journey on This Is Us began with a quest for the truth—for a deeper understanding of his story. By not knowing the truth about his parents, his story felt incomplete. Something was missing—the key to finally feeling like he fully belonged instead of the nagging sense of being an outsider that he felt as a Black young man in a white family. It was hard for him to join the past to the future the way Tim O’Brien said so beautifully without full knowledge of how it all began.
How he began.
As This Is Us has gone on, we’ve watched all the Pearson siblings deal with the most difficult chapters of their stories and move closer to a place of understanding how those chapters influenced all the chapters that have come after. But for Randall, there was still one chapter that was missing.
The story of his mother.
With this in mind, “Birth Mother” provided not just a beautiful look at Laurel—Randall’s birth mother and a fully-developed character in her own right—but also a beautiful look at why we need stories and how learning the truth can often be the only thing that sets us free to keep writing our own narrative.
I couldn’t single out one moment from this episode as the best thing I saw on TV this week; the whole thing was a work of art. Its ability to paint a beautiful picture of a full life in an hour showcased what this series does best—it makes us feel; it makes us care. The whole episode was a deep exploration of the stories we tell ourselves (especially the stories we tell ourselves about our parents), the ways those stories often don’t reflect the full truth of a life, and the healing and hope that lies in accepting the truth—about another person’s story and about our own.
Randall began this episode in a place of pain and misunderstanding—believing his mother hadn’t wanted him, that his father had lied to him, and that his mother had never cared about him enough to find him. Watching all of those misconceptions fade away under the light of the truth was an example of storytelling at its finest—a reminder that the narratives we construct about other people are often never the full story; human beings are often much more complex than we give them credit for being.
Laurel’s story was filled with pain, but it was also filled with love. The love of her brother, her aunt, William, and Hai all shaped her life. But it was her love for her son—a love she carried with her for the rest of her life—that mattered the most to Randall.
He was wanted. He was missed. He was loved.
In that stunningly surreal scene in the lake, Randall was able to accept that love and get the closure he’d been missing for his whole life without realizing how deeply he’d been missing it. He was able to understand the difficult beginning of his story as a chapter filled with love even as it was also filled with pain. He was able to finally let go of the narrative he’d always told himself about his beginnings and accept the messy, imperfect, beautiful truth.
And with that knowledge—with the missing paragraphs of that first chapter finally filled in—he was able to emerge from that lake lighter, brighter, and better than he was before. (The baptism symbolism was strong in this episode.)
Because stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world—and how we make sense of ourselves. When we discover a new chapter of our story, we discover a new piece of ourselves. And the piece Randall discovered in “Birth Mother” was the missing piece allowing him to step into his future—including his future with his brother—from a place of confidence, openness, and love.
What was the best thing you saw on TV this week?