I recently sat in on a lecture for a leadership class for young people. The premise of the lecture went something like this: “In order to bring change to your community, it’s important to know your own story. You should reflect on your life in order to create a narrative that you can bring to the table when you go out into the world.” We were asked to fill out a large number of questions about our pasts, our families, our aspirations, and how all of those things fit together to form our personal story. In a certain sense, we were constructing psychological profiles for ourselves, not unlike a Freudian psychoanalysis.
The class, of course, had the best of intentions, but I left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t know if this is a characteristically Western way of approaching life, but there seems to be an obsession in this country with personal and cultural narratives. Life should, apparently, follow the same format as a novel. Every detail has meaning and effects subsequent events, with a few themes running across the years to tie our lives together. We reach a series of climaxes that resolve our psychological, emotional, and spiritual journeys. We are supposed to strive for continuity, so that if we were to sit down with a pen and the instructions to write a memoir, the narrative would come easily.
I don’t personally believe in the narrative structure of a life. The reason why novels have such a definite, thematic narrative is because the author is in charge. There is no serendipity or random chance in a novel; events are planned and edited according to a predestined narrative arc. Our fiction follows a neat, congruous storyline because that novels are written to produce a sense of closure and resolution at the end. They give us morals, themes, and characters with beginnings and ends. I love novels, but they are not accurate depictions of the real progression of human life.
The problem is, we don’t live towards resolutions. Every event in my past isn’t culminating in this very moment, leading me towards a climax and closure. My life isn’t a collection of a few themes that pop up over and over again, evolving over time. My very memory isn’t really continuous, and my psyche doesn’t evolve linearly like a character in a book. Cause and effect are so messy in real life, and much of our identity and memory is made up, misremembered, or imagined after the fact. Memories change, identities evolve in strange ways, and we all abide by a certain degree of randomness and chance.
I believe that trying to turn life into a narrative is dangerous. It makes us crave resolution and a definitive causal structure for our entire lives. We feel the need to box up our experiences and explain them based on grander themes and ideas, when some events just happen for no narrative reason. Our decisions are supposed to follow a progression, and our memories are supposed to accurately portray our pasts and inform our futures.
There is so much pressure and disappointment to be felt when trying to turn life into a novel. We have to be finding meaning and arc in every action, every experience, every thought and feeling. We have to be constantly justifying our choices, our aspirations, our desires and fears, our very selves on some decades-old story that started at birth. When things end without total resolution, we feel that we’ve failed to finish the story, and we get trapped in an endless need to find closure. We limit ourselves to a few identifying themes and become paralyzed, because abandoning our labels and themes is abandoning our story.
In order to grow and fully appreciate the serendipitous quality of life, we must be willing to let go of the narrative that holds our story together. We are not stories; we are a present consciousness. We are the atoms that make us up in this very moment, which are forever changing and reacting to an infinitely complicated universe. We can never ascribe a narrative to our lives because the world and the brain are too utterly complex to box up in a story. Being human and free means being able to shift in any direction, to take the reins and reinvent ourselves, to let go of old memories and identities and move into new domains as we evolve. Abandoning old narratives and self-stories is accepting the transitory, momentary quality of human life. It is denying the ego its power of storytelling and justifying, accusing and blaming the past for our present suffering. Stories restrict us, and blank pages are our freedom.
I have told myself so many stories about myself, which become habitual loops of thinking about my own identity. I now realize how pernicious this cycle is. I don’t want to be limited by my old identifiers and memories. I am grateful to be a human because being human is being free. I would hate to shackle myself to a sensical novel that I have to strive to write every day.
What stories do you tell yourself about your past, present, and future? Do stories comfort or restrict you? How have you given up narratives in favor of present Being?