Philosophers, psychologists, and authors have written at length about about how we tend to think of our lives as stories. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist, says “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’…this narrative is us, our identities.” Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist, similarly suggests “we are all virtuoso novelists, we try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography.” My Ph.D. advisor, Professor Nick Chater at Warwick Business School in England, makes a similar claim. He says we are “spectacular story creators [who]organise our thoughts around stories…that’s the way we understand ourselves.”
Is Your Life Truly a Story?
There are two claims being made here: a descriptive claim and a normative claim. The first is about human psychology: that people do, in fact, think of their lives as stories. The second is that storytelling is itself a good and thing that can help us to understand ourselves and see meaning in our lives.
Philosopher Galen Strawson disagrees. In his 2004 paper “Against Narrativity,” Strawson strongly argues against both the descriptive and the normative claims. Not everyone sees their lives narratively, he says, and offers himself as an example. Rather than seeing his life as one grand story, he perceives it more as a series of episodes, loosely connected but ultimately distinct. He also argues against the normative claim and suggests that many people might be better off not trying to turn their lives into a story.
The Problems With Storytelling
Before I read Strawson’s article, I believed that seeing my life as a story provided me with a sense of meaning and, perhaps, an element of self-understanding.
But after reading Strawson I’ve rethought this. In striving to construct a good narrative from our lives, we might end up revising our memories to make better sense of them: ultimately hindering, rather than helping, our self-understanding. We might also end up unnecessarily constrained by our past: if we’re desperately trying to create a good story from our lives, we’re more likely to continue acting in ways that “fit” with our past selves, rather than feeling free to adapt to the current situation. Seeing our lives as a story might actually be constraining our behavior and putting a certain lens on how we see the world.
People who have no need to fit their lives into a neat story, by contrast, might be freer to live and enjoy the moment. They might be more able to be the person they want to be right now, not the person they feel they are because of how they’ve acted in the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean denying that the things that happened to them previously affect who they are now—obviously one’s four-year-old self is connected to one’s current self in a way no other person is. But that doesn’t mean the past self need control, within some reason, who one is now.
I still think the storytelling perspective has its advantages, and different people may be suited to each perspective. But until reading Strawson, I wasn’t even really aware that there was an alternative way of thinking about things. Having that awareness seems like it can only be a good thing.
Perhaps more importantly, I think Strawson is alluding to something fundamental about how we understand others. I’ve written before about how we tend to assume others’ internal states are similar to our own, and how this can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication. I think this is part of what’s going on here—those who write about how “all people view their lives as a story” simply view their own lives as a story, and so find it difficult to consider how anyone could not do so.
But if you’re a storyteller about your own life, and you can’t imagine how anyone else could not be a storyteller about his or her life, this could start to cause some problems. If you don’t even realize that you think of your life in a fundamentally different way than someone else does, it’s likely to be quite hard for you to understand each other. Strawson suggests that this inability to see how something that’s fundamental for you could not be fundamental to someone else “may be the greatest single source of unhappiness in human intercourse.”
When Two Perspectives Collide
A good friend of mine was recently telling me about how he genuinely believes many of the issues he and his ex-girlfriend had were due to the fact that she was a storyteller and he wasn’t. In particular, she would get really upset and offended whenever something came up about his childhood that he hadn’t told her about. She didn’t understand why he didn’t want to share those things with her—to her, they were important for understanding him, for understanding his story. But he didn’t see it that way; instead, he saw his childhood as an episode of his life with which he was now only very loosely connected. Whatever happened to him as a child simply wasn’t relevant to the person he was as an adult.
Maybe if they’d realized that this was where they differed, things would have been easier. If she’d known that he avoided sharing things not because he didn’t want to share his past life with her but simply because he didn’t see it as part of his life now, maybe she would have been less upset. If he’d known that understanding his life as a story was important to her, maybe he would have been happy to share those things, even if they weren’t important to him. There’s a lot of value in trying to really, truly understand how someone else is thinking—and to consider that it might be totally different from your own perspective.
This doesn’t just apply to whether you view your life as a story or not. How much time have you spent trying to understand how someone close to you really views the world and his or her life—and how that perspective might differ from your own? When I read Strawson’s paper, I stumbled across a useful perspective on life that I hadn’t even considered before. Spending some time trying to understand how your loved ones view the world might help you do the same.