Have you ever had the feeling that you are living out a story that was written a while ago by some familiar but mysterious stranger? Yes, you are the author but there also seems to be another hand at work. The story is so familiar that it has to be you but you didn’t intentionally write it.
The choices you make in following these scripts don’t really feel like choices. It’s as though you are sleepwalking, passing other options as though they barely exist. You march down a prescribed path like a character in a Greek Drama. The path feels almost like destiny. Because you are the child of this mother or father, whose ideas about your future have suffused your being, you make choices over and again in obedience or in contradiction to the life they imagined for you. Because you were born into a particular era—say the post War 1940’s—you are upwardly mobile, married, with three children, and living in the suburbs, as though the zeitgeist had written the script for you.
Most of the time, the narratives that define our lives remain unconscious. We believe that we have chosen our own fate. We think we have decided what kind of person to marry, what kind of work to do, whether and how to pray, what type of communities to join. We feel the tug on subconscious forces, like strings commanding puppets, though not so much that we feel the need to break free.
But sometimes these narratives break into consciousness and we wonder: Whose life am I leading? I awoke one night during graduate school, for example, with a realization: I was studying history, reading philosophy, and writing poetry—the very pursuits my father felt he had been denied—the pursuits he had bequeathed to me. He never said this explicitly, but somehow I felt I had to live out his unfulfilled dreams. Then, with that realization fresh and real, I stepped out of my dream state and made a series of different choices — deciding, for example, to switch from history to psychotherapy. It was as if the sky had parted and a god had offered me my freedom.
Usually, the moments when we see our narratives not as destiny but as choices often emerge during times of decision, change, or crisis, when the regular choices don’t feel right—even if we can say exactly why. Imagine, though: our spouse has a new job in a new city, our way of thinking about ourselves comes apart. No matter how confusing, annoying, or terrifying, for a moment we can actually choose what we want to do. The opportunity is luxurious.
Developmental crises—adolescence, midlife, retirement, for example — are famous for bringing the regular flow of life up short. Take midlife crises. Silly and awkward as they may look, they often represent earnest efforts to break from what feels like a prison of prescribed choices. Or sometimes they reflect a long-buried wish to leave the accumulated boredom and disengagement that comes from cruising based on old injunctions: Take care of your family! Make something of yourself! Find someone who will care for you.
Often the break into consciousness comes with questions. From this point on, am I condemned to repeat myself, to live within these prescribed boundaries? Can I escape? Do I want to escape? Isn’t this good enough? Might I lose what I most value if I change my life? Won’t I hurt others if I rebel? You could call the sum of these moments identity crises.
But it’s important to remember: These narratives, however powerful, don’t represent all that you are. They are stories told over and over, stories that have gathered confirming experience to themselves. Each new experience seen through the lens of our narratives provides the proof that this is who we are. But the stories also gloss over parts of ourselves. For instance, a family person might yearn for solo adventure. A heady professional might long to work construction. .
Over the many years I practiced and taught psychotherapy, for instance, I’d maintain a stream of significant renovation projects at home. The projects were concrete, definite. They provided a kind satisfaction that was sometimes missing in the complexity of psychotherapy, when I wasn’t always sure that I was helpful or helpful enough or helpful in the right way. A kitchen wall was a kitchen wall. I could see it and others could, too.
I wondered if I might take a few years to build houses—on spec, no less—and relax my mind. If I had taken the years, I’m pretty sure that my life and the narratives that guided it would have turned in many ways. My relationship to my family and freinds would have shifted. My image of myself would likely have been transformed. I would have, essentially, tossed the script aside.
I don’t think I pulled the construction idea from the sky. My father, raised in the Great Depression, had wanted me to have a trade, some safe way to support my family. This was the other side of his philosophical dreams, and I absorbed it, too. Being a child of the 1950’s, with its great prosperity and endless opportunities, I became a ‘successful’ professional. But there was always this other narrative of working with my hands, of making things, that has lived not so far beneath the surface. As a matter of fact, I wonder if my writing pursuits stem from and join both narratives, producing concrete verbal entities that all can see.
There are several, maybe many, narratives that float in our unconscious and peak or break through during times of crisis – for example, narratives of adventure, helplessness, invisibility, peacefulness. My mother, for instance, could never let go the idea that she was meant to be an explorer like Thor Heyerdahl who ventured across the Pacific in a straw raft. Even as she lived a conventional life, almost every event in her life was interpreted, at some level, in terms of how she had fulfilled or abandoned that narrative of risk, adventure and rewards. In a way, that narrative represented her identity almost as much as the one she lived every day.
Old age offers a particular opportunity to experiment with new stories about ourselves; the long-standing, dominant ones are less tightly secured than they were by schedules, responsibilities, business, and the familiar people in our lives who keep them in place. You might say that we are vulnerable to these ‘intrusions,’ or that they come as welcome guests to enliven our years. Let me illustrate an odd one that I seem to carry with me.
There is a rabbinical narrative within me, maybe because so many of my forebearers were rabbis, but it’s not the rabbi you might expect. There’s a quiet man, not a preaching man with a congregation. He is chanting and pious, with his head and shoulders covered in a prayer shawl. I don’t know where this image comes from but it has strength to it. Here is how it continues: I have left the flock, whom I loved but who also have burdened me because I never knew if I could give them what they wanted or, more importantly, what they needed. Even as I held that ambivalence, I never felt it was right to leave them. So I didn’t. Now I am old, and they have gone. In this story, I don’t know if I’ve left them or if they have left me. But I am free of responsibility and mostly alone. I can be quiet. I can be calm. I’m hidden beneath my prayer shawl. I feel content.
If you are quiet and allow your normal responses to situations flow by, if you detach from your dominant life narrative, I wonder what stories and imagery might come to mind.