David Brooks recently asked in his NYT column whether we should think of our lives not as stories but as games (or, more precisely, as series of games). As “a liberal arts type” , writes Brooks, he favors the first option. Brooks is right that taking our lives to be stories is prevalent among people of a humanistic bent. One reason may be that such a theory helps us explain the importance of literature and other forms of narrative to our lives. If our lives are stories, then getting better at understanding narrative might help us understand ourselves. And it is part of humanistic inquiry - a central part - to understand narratives.
One of the reasons I admired Sheila Heti's novel Motherhood is that she subjects her own life to the expectation that it will unfold like a novel--the one she's basically writing--and this leads her to over-read everything, turning it all into clues. The problem turns out to be that she's depressed and needs a little help and time, but what she *thinks* is that she, as the protagonist, must Make A Decision and Use Her Agency (that most important trait of protagonists) and that it must be the single right decision. Which things in her life are foreshadowing of the bad decision she will make; which things are hinge points where she will Make the Right Choice? None, as it turns out. And that's ... how life unfolds, surprisingly often.
Finally reading this & appreciating it greatly. I'm skeptical about only one point you make: that our inability to tell perfect stories about ourselves (that's what you meant by our not being "apt story tellers", right?) doesn't seem to me like a reason not to tell our stories as best we can, or to dismiss what value does lie in the incomplete or inapt (or inept?) stories we're capable of telling. I mean, I'm not sure our inaptness as self-narrators is all that important: your argument seems to me to work just fine even if you subtract that point.
As for the rest -- constitutive relationships, persons as ethical realities, friendship -- yes yes yes: well put, and thanks for putting it so well.
Really good point about Strawson not mentioning others and how relationships form the self. There are stories you have to tell to each new acquaintance that you end up repeating hundreds of times. Not sure if this ends up as constituting a narrative or alienating you from core experiences through the repetition.
Thanks Dhananjay, I see the navigation now - reducing everything to story is a high road to relativism and undermines the very purpose of narrative.
However, I would want to push a little further up the story track. I suspect they are more than a way of helping us make sense of ourselves. They are the best way to express what we mean by reality. Does this resonate? Keen to understand what you mean by the non-narrative dimensions of life.
Thanks for this reflection. Yes, it would be strange to suggest our lives are only stories. Still, this is different from the notion that stories may be the best way of framing experience in order to make sense of our lives. Is that fair? I’m invested - I write stories.
I really appreciated this post. I often hear my fellow therapists-in-training talk about the models we use to help our clients figure out their lives or sort through the struggles they've been experiencing. As much as I like the idea of Narrative Therapy, which bears some tangential relation to what you're discussing, it's something that I've often struggled with. I have found, however, with responsible disclosure to my clients relating what is relevant to their experience in session, that using an experiential, episodic form of narrative can help them process and understand their own experience with someone relating to themselves, and understand their human struggles in the context of being received by another in what are often very commonplace human issues.
We frame ourselves in relation not just to our experiences of events, but our experiences with others and reaction to their reactions. Through this co-coordinated sharing, we are able to form our concept of self; it bears some similarity to the communication theory of constructivism.
All in all, this was a great read.