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July 20, 2012 7:34 pm
It may seem obvious that the story of our life to date is just what it is, and that we can only change it in flights of fancy. But the idea that the Lego bricks of our daily lives may be arranged into different buildings is not fanciful. If you re-examine how you make sense of past events, it will almost certainly turn out that your dominant narrative can be challenged by alternative stories. Narrative therapy insisted on the importance of such “re-storying” of experience, as does the newer narrative coaching.
We can’t help storying our life. That’s what human beings do. It can be fruitful therefore to examine the narrative that has unreflectively built up over time. This is more important than one might think: stories have consequences, and we live by them in a very real sense.
One of the ways we can begin to do this is by looking for exceptions, new frames of reference or hitherto neglected aspects of our life. Out of these we can craft more constructive stories that open rather than close possibilities. For example, if you see yourself as a “fearful person”, it can make a difference to come to understand that you have sometimes shown courage in ways you didn’t recognise at the time.
As so often, there is a but. The danger is that however responsible therapists or coaches may be, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of believing there are no limits to re-storying, that we can liberally pick and choose the elements of our life story. There can be a temptation to adopt self-serving and comforting stories whose only flaw is that they are simply not true. By not matching up with the real facts, these are ultimately likely to be self-defeating.
The realistic hope is to reintegrate and flesh out some of the awkward details that had previously been left out, updating the old narrative and replacing it with a more accurate and complex one. If most of our lives could do with some editing, we should not lose sight of the fact that stories need to be rooted in reality.
For many philosophers and psychologists, the idea that we need a life narrative is something of an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that we just are the stories we tell about ourselves.
In psychology and neuroscience there are several versions of the same basic idea that self experience comes in two very different forms. First, there is a sense in which we are aware of what is going on from moment to moment. However, this “core self”, as António Damásio calls it, or “experiencing self”, to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, is fleeting and transitory. Life for a creature with only this kind of self would add up to nothing more than a collection of disconnected experiences. To give our lives a sense of continuity and wholeness we need the remembering (Kahneman) or autobiographical (Damásio) self. This is the editor of experience, the curator of memories, and ultimately the creator of persons who have a sense of identity over time, with a past, present and future.
Sceptics argue that this creation of a coherent narrative of self is a kind of Stalinism that rewrites the chaotic reality of lived life in order to tell a neat, straight story with a beginning, middle and end. We construct a biographical fiction and then mistake it for autobiographical fact. We may find narratives of self beneficial, but they are just fairy stories, crutches to help us deal with the confusing flux of existence.
It’s true that from the raw materials of experience, more than one tale can be told. But although all of them will vastly simplify the complexities and contradictions experienced in the sequence of nows, some will be more truthful than others.
The idea that we would live with a more accurate awareness of our true natures if we could give up our narratives is bogus because it denies the evident truth that the storytelling self is as real a part of us as the experiencing, fleeting self. Authentic living does not require that we give up the never-ending task of real-time autobiography, but that we do so while recognising the episodic, fragmentary nature of the story being told.
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini’s book “The Shrink and The Sage” is available in paperback (Icon, £9.99). To suggest a question, email email@example.com.
Stephen Grosz returns in two weeks
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