Shared stories connect us as human beings. Stories can soothe sorrows or excite passion, spark creativity and foster dreams. Jung described myths, stories shared across cultures and eons, as the collective unconsciousness of humanity. From Greek, through Persian, Nordic and Celtic myths, to present day novels and blogs, archetypal stories re-appear: the mother, the hero/ine, the wanderer, the mystic.
The stories we tell ourselves and others about life are the way we negotiate memory, time, and identity. Schools of philosophy view story (narrative in academic speak) as a way of working out who we are and what matters in our lives. Our sense of self is shaped through our interaction with others in our families, communities and culture. Even hermits were once held as babies and grew up interacting in a shared world. When we listen to one another, we check back against our own lives; we compare or contrast another’s perspective against our own, altering or confirming it in making sense of our lives. We try out new ways of acting, bouncing against family and society expectations, trying to fit in or break away.
How many times have we rehearsed our opening lines when entering a job interview, presenting a seminar, or even being introduced to strangers at a dinner party. Inside our heads, we shape and reshape our stories of self: I’m passionate, lazy, kind, fearful or I’ve always been a collector, reader, walker, cook. Even though our thoughts are scattered, misshapen or conflicting, when we bundle them into stories to tell our friends and colleagues, we are shaping our identity, our very sense of self. We draw on memory in our storytelling, despite memory being fragile and fleeting. Cognitive scientists tell us that every time we revisit a memory in pondering the past or planning the future, we subtly reshape it. We may even deliberately add a dash of humour or pathos. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, was one of my family mottos.
Stories we read and watch, books and movies also shape our lives. When I look back over my life, each period is littered with talismans of favourite books, from The Water Babies, through Siddhartha to The God of Small Things. Even the language we speak can alter the way we think about our lives. In a story on endangered languages in National Geographic, the writer describes how ideas of time can alter in different cultures. In our western culture we talk of the future being ahead of us and the past behind. In Tuva, spoken in a part of Eastern Russia, the future is described as ‘behind ones back’ and the past as in front of a person, being ‘in plain view’. We can look at the past, see its shapes and contours, but the future is always hidden.
I’ve just finished reading Michael Ondaatje’a book ‘The Cat’s Table’ where he describes the experiences of three boys travelling from Ceylon to London in the nineteen fifties and the way that journey shaped their adult lives. Later in the book (p. 196), he describes our storied sense of self as always being just ahead of us, something we glimpse before ‘gradually attaching’ ourselves to it by ‘feeding it’. In his lyrical writing style, he adds that through this unfolding story within us, we discover ‘the path of our life’.
Psychologists note that a healthy sense of self hinges around our lives having some coherent shape, as a pathway travelled perhaps. Our unfolding story, the past in front of us, our sense of who we are, is fluid and changing yet has a coherent core, a sense of continuity that links our disparate experiences back though time. Once we become older of course, it’s easier to look over the contours of a life – to see its shapes, patterns, pathways and hidden corners. The idea of Life Review, either an informal reflection on our lives or through a guided process can be beneficial for people undergoing significant transitions: retirement, widowhood or serious illness. James Birren and Donna Deutchman have written a book on ‘Guided Autobiography Groups for Older Adults’ as detailed on this TSAO Successful Aging website: http://www.tsaofoundation.org/GAB.html .
Finding shaping and telling our stories, particularly as we age, can give a sense of meaning to the messiness of rich, well-lived lives. The closing scene is never known and the storyline may vary from our dreams. But the fact that the story remains unfinished can give us a sense of future. In creating this blog and other writing projects as I enter my sixties, I’m not looking for an imagined fame (thank goodness as that possibility is truly fanciful). I’m hoping to hear experiences and ideas from others, but essentially I’m focusing on, as Anais Nin said, ‘tasting life twice,’ once in the living and again in recollection; truly savoring the experiences.