Updating Your Life Story

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.


The indescribable comfort of being (well) known

Just last week, I was telling my wife, Franny, how exciting I have become about writing.  Ideas and images fill my mind.  Words are my friends.  I hold them to me as though they are palpable. They know no bounds.  They slip into my mind when I’m driving, walking, going to sleep.  Every day feels like I’m learning more about the craft.  There’s a passion that has taken me over at an age when I expected to be cooling out.

As I talked, I noticed a familiar, sly smile on Franny’s face—prelude to a full scale roast.  “Oh,” she began, “this is nothing like when you built all those organizations, built the house in New Hampshire, wrote your books.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  My defenses began to rise—she was making fun of me, after all—but quickly fell away, and I began to laugh with her.  My pleasure in feeling known, and being known lovingly, overwhelmed the defensiveness.

We do this for each other.  We know the characters and the narratives in each other’s lives.  We don’t have to be caught up, filled in, or taught.  We’re almost always ready for the next episode.  It’s an unspoken intimacy that the books on love don’t attend to enough, yet it offers an indescribable warmth and security.  Even couples in the midst of difficulties often find comfort in being known.

I was a couple therapist for about thirty years.  And I taught the craft to younger clinicians for twenty-five of those years.  The object was generally to help couples work out problems, regain—if possible—their lost passions—and to become better friends to one another.  Nowhere in the standard clinical curricula we assigned was there much in the way of people bearing witness to each other’s lives.  Yet, with each passing year, I have come to appreciate this simple, quiet action as one of the most powerful and enduring qualities of long relationships.

Bearing witness is not the sole possession of marriage.  Friends, siblings, and colleagues also get to know us, develop stories about us, and place current events into those stories.  The importance of siblings, generally our longest relationships, often grows over time. They share our memories; they embody the continuity of our lives.  Recently my cousin Jonny said that his life could be divided into three phases: youth, when family was closest; adulthood, when friends and colleagues took center stage, and old age, when the centrality of family re-emerged.  Now he ached for the safety of his children and grandchildren and felt almost held by those who have known him, over the decades, as pretty much the same old Jonny.

I think what he means is that his sense of security depends in good part on being recognized, known and appreciated over time.   Let me elaborate that point.  Our identity, our sense of who we are in the world, is made up of narratives we build in order to define who we are in the world.  Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust, puts it:  “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover — or invent — consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”  When people confirm these stories by action or word, they make us stronger, surer.

People don’t always share our preferred narratives, which can be disruptive and painful.  What then?  We negotiate with them until there is a tacit agreement about who we are.  “I’m a person to trust,” we might say, and with time and experience, they may believe us more or less. With each new setting that we enter and with each new stage of life we begin, the narrative must be adjusted.  Sometimes this is a relief, as when we move from an unsatisfying work situation or relationship into one with greater potential to become and to be seen as the person we want to be.

These negotiations are partly intentional but also take place below the level of consciousness.  For instance, when we meet a new person, we often tell our life story.  We don’t think of ourselves as inventing the narrative, but we do find ourselves emphasizing things we like about ourselves and de-emphasizing or excluding what we don’t.  These new encounters present opportunities to re-invent ourselves.  But only partly. The stories are largely the same.  They become filters of sorts between what’s most deeply inside—hidden or protected or barely known—and how we want to be seen.

The socio-linguist, Charlotte Linde, puts it this way “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”    These stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.”

Let’s return to the experience of bearing witness.  There may be not a more reassuring experience than when an important person in our life consistently assures us that the person we think we  are and want to be is essentially the person we really are.  For that moment, we need not even revise or negotiate.

However, and this is a big however, being known is not always comforting.  It can also be disconcerting, infuriating, even frightening when people, like spouses, relatives, and friends, “know” you in ways that you don’t want to be known.  You might want people to love your energy, but they see you as frenetic and unfocused.  You might think yourself kind but others find you ingratiating.  When key people “know” you “incorrectly,” and when you can’t convince them otherwise, through word or action, then you either enter an identity crisis—who am I—or you distance yourself from them.

Being “known” can feel like a prison. For example, when people don’t expect much of you, you often don’t produce.  When people see you as irrational, you often fall prey to that expectation.  In other words we either accommodate to expectations—how we are known—or run from them.  This is frequently the underlying cause of divorce: the need to escape debilitating or dismissive views of ourselves.  So, too, the rebellion or flight of teenagers, who want to be taken seriously and as separate people, not extensions of their parents.  Escaping the prison of being known presents the possibility of being known by others in a more positive and enabling light.

The way that we bear witness to another person’s experience can be ignorant because we haven’t taken the time to really know them; and it can be self serving.  We know them in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  For instance, their flaws make us feel more virtuous or superior.

But bearing witness can also be life affirming.  It is affirming when it is generous, when it seeks out the best in a friend or spouse.  It is affirming when it is capacious, that is, when you recognize who the other person is and you know that you don’t see all that the person is.  This gives them room to change and grow.  To bear witness well means opening  the prison doors and letting go of the rigid or self serving views that we hold of others.

Bearing witness generously is important through the life span but it may be most important to people in the midst of life transitions.  This is where old people, midlife travelers, and adolescents, for example, share a heightened intensity of experience.  Each of these cohorts may have been assessing their lives, very conscious of how they are seen—known—and very much needing encouragement to move confidently into the next stage of their development.  The comfort of being known by someone who really likes who you are is immeasurable.