Are You Telling the Right Story of Your Life?Share
A little self-compassion goes a long way in helping us tell our life stories to ourselves and to others.
Think of a book or movie you know well with a well-drawn protagonist. By the end of the story, you have come to an understanding of who this character is, and there are certain things that character cannot do without throwing your mind out of experiencing the story and into a place of questioning the storyteller.
The same holds true with our own self-conceptions. People act in ways that fit with their idea of who they are.
And often, the story we tell about ourselves highlights the things we have done wrong in our lives. This sets us up to expect failure from ourselves.
There is another way.
Tell Your Story: Focus on the Good Things.
A simple exercise is to think of how an experience in your life that seemed horrible at the time lead to a good outcome.
For example, I married a man I met several thousand miles away from where I grew up, far from my family of origin. When I met him, I was working long hours as a lawyer negotiating intellectual property licenses for technology firms, a job that I was good at but had no passion for. I went to law school because I couldn’t think of anything else I had the courage to do after college. After graduation, I went to work for the one firm that had offered me a summer job after my second year of school. It was an “I’m too scared to act like an artist or scholar, so I’m going to get a real job” option, and it was not a good time in my life. But, if I had not become a lawyer, I would never have moved to where I met my husband. I can tell my story and claim that becoming a lawyer was a necessary evil on the path to a happy marriage.
I am not wild about that way of looking at biography, because I don’t think life is as simple as that. For instance, I believe that if I had not moved to California to practice law, I might still have ended up happily married, just with somebody different. I believe that a lot of relationship formation has to do with luck and timing.
But, there is another way to look at one’s life story and focus on the good stuff. If you assume that the protagonist of your life story has been trying to get to a goal through whatever tactics were available at the time and did the best they could in every given circumstance, you can use the practice of compassionate imagination to look for the story that shows the character off in the best light. Of course, in this case, the character in question is you.
I’m going to use myself as the example again. And I am going to look at my life passion and career development story. The story it is easy for me to tell goes like this:
A Failure of Potential
I always knew I was smart, but I could never figure out what I wanted to do. I was interested in learning all sorts of disconnected things and never got deep enough into any one thing to master it and could never figure out how to satisfy enough of those interests in any one job, so I have spent my adult life jumping in and out of jobs and courses of study and haven’t really done anything worthwhile with my professional life.
But, the following story is equally true:
A Life-Long Interdisciplinary Study of Meaning and Humanity in Modern Life
I did my undergraduate work as part of a very special program. The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University designates up to 40 students a year as College Scholars. As College Scholars, we were relieved of all graduation requirements other than a minimum number of credits, some physical education, and a thesis in the senior year. Admission is based on grades, intellectual maturity, and a proposed program of study that doesn’t fit the standard model of a major and a mix of other courses across the disciplines for breadth. It is a program that works best for individuals who want to pursue narrow fields in great depth or multidisciplinary study that doesn’t fit well with the structure of a traditional major.
In my application, I stated that I wanted to use my time at Cornell to begin a life-long study of the nature of humankind and the challenges of creating community from a collection of disparate individuals. I proposed, and in fact pursued, a course of study that included art as an exploration of subjective experience; foreign language and linguistics as study of the nature of communication; social anthropology as a way of looking at collective living; biopsychology as a way of understanding the connections between the objective physical nature of a human being and subjective experience; and a smattering of philosophy to think about the nature of thought. As I had predicted, at the end of four years, I was nowhere near synthesizing all those areas of study into any grand unifying theory I could use to build a life’s work around.
I continued this life study in law school. Harvard Law School is huge as law schools go, which means that there are an enormous number of electives offered. In my role as traditional law student, I worked as an editor primarily for the Journal of Law and Technology, but also for the Journal of Law and Gender, the Environmental Law Review, and the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, and as an advocate for women seeking restraining orders against abusers. But, I also took classes looking at legal systems in cultural environments: Islamic Law, Christianity and law in the US, theories of constitutional democracy, history of legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, etc. At the same, I was acting and directing, writing a column for the law school paper on arts and cultural events on the wider Harvard campus, and hanging out in museums, libraries, and special lectures all over campus. Studying at the law school was an excuse to carry on my multidisciplinary research into the nature of human beings. Between my cultural activities and my studies, I was digging deeper into the nature of people and societies.
After law school, I took a detour into the working world to pay off some educational debt. When I had done as much of that as I could stand, I went back to school, this time at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist school with a focus on construction of deeply subjective systems of meaning and value in the world and on development of institutions that support life-long inquiries into meaning and purpose in a life where science explains much and bad things happen.
While at Starr King, I studied more religious traditions: Judaism, Christian heretical traditions, Paganism. I explored the connections between theatrical creativity, improvisational performance art, childlike play, and spiritual experience. I looked at organizational systems and personal counseling. And I discovered Ken Wilber, from whom I learned just how big an area of study I was investigating. The theory of Integral studies is that one looks at the world from 3 perspectives: the inner, subjective experience of one individual; the subjective experience of a group of people; and the objective reality of individuals and groups. I realized I had been driven to understand humanity from an Integral perspective, and I keep pursuing it.
What has become clear to me over the past few years is that I believe an Integral approach is necessary to truly understand what it means to be human. More importantly, however, I have realized that my underlying goal is to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives, despite the fact that secular, consumerist capitalism is a soul-sucking system.
Which Story Helps Build a Better Future?
If I see my journey as a series of steps that continually broaden and deepen my understanding of a particular intellectual inquiry, it looks like I have accomplished a lot more in my life than if I look only at the surface.
Yes, it looks flaky to certain people that I got an undergraduate degree in Theatre and BioPsychology, got a J.D., studied towards an M.Div, but left after I had completed the intellectual study I wanted, and then became an InterPlay teacher and writer, but they were all steps towards a greater understanding of a single question: how does a human being live a good and meaningful life?
They are opposite stories. In one, I am a total flake. In the other, I demonstrate that I have pursued a single area of study for more than two decades.
They are both true stories, but one is a source of pride and a sense of accomplishment and the other is a story of weakness and failure. I know which one I would rather listen to.
Are there stories you tell about yourself that you could look at in a more generous light? What would happen if you looked back at your life and focused on the things you did right?