The Meaningful Life is Storied

Why we should tell the best stories about ourselves

Is your life a story? Are we literally the authors of our life? Should we be?

Jared Bauer from Wisecrack argues that we shouldn’t think in such grandiose terms, because to do so is to set ourselves up for disappointment. If we don’t receive the redemption we expect, we’ll think our suffering has been in vain. Instead, he suggests, we should come to terms with the pointlessness of our hardships.

“The thing is, real life is not structured like a story. There are no arcs,” he writes. “Suffering is not the second act to your inevitable fairy tale resolution. Suffering is simply suffering. Your suffering does not ennoble you, nor does it make you a moral exemplar. It just hurts.”

In fact, life is structured as a story; moreover, that shouldn’t be surprising. Like songs, stories resonate because they reflect that threefold structure of having a beginning, middle, and an end. Everything in the universe, in that sense, has a basic narrative structure, which is perhaps why we don’t credit events as having a pattern or an order unless they have that threefold division. Like everything else, we come into existence (birth and the growth of childhood), we undergo a stable period with which we most identify (maturity in adulthood), and we perish (retirement and death).

But that’s only a trivial way in which life has a narrative arc. Our experience isn’t typically staged like Truman’s in The Truman Show, nor is there a single author of a person’s life deciding everything that happens to that individual — unless we’re talking about the special case of living in a dictatorship that has totalitarian control over the flow of events within its borders. More generally, life isn’t literally a story, because the world at large has a say in what happens to us, and the world isn’t an intelligent designer or an author of what happens within it.

Of course, if you think God is in control, you might be inclined to construe even a liberal society as part of what Christopher Hitchens called a “celestial dictatorship,” since God’s control over everything apart from our freewill would presumably be absolute. Our freewill, though, would contribute that “messiness” Jared Bauer referred to, messiness and unpredictability which would disrupt God’s plan, as would the devil’s input, in which case a religious person might share authorship of her life.

In any case, I’ll assume there’s no such universal Designer or Author — which leaves us as the only possible authors. We don’t dictate everything that happens to us, not even in a dictatorship, so at best a human life could be partially authored, which is to say partially chosen in accordance with an intended plot. Bauer’s point, then, is that because the natural world is indifferent towards any such designs we have on what should happen to us, the notion that human life unfolds as a story is dangerous. Our preferred plot may not happen despite our best efforts: we might not travel as much as we’d like or marry the person we dream of or become rich and famous.

However, the danger of such idealistic thinking indicates only that for most of us, life isn’t a clichéd story. Most of us couldn’t craft an engaging, elegant, compelling narrative if our life depended on it. It may be a shame, then, that Tolstoy, Dickens and Virginia Woolf weren’t in full control of their environments, since they’d have authored marvelous lives for themselves. For the rest of us who aren’t famous novelists, we should almost welcome not having full artistic control over our development. The life we wish we had, the one we’re most inclined to imagine is often too conventional and narrowly self-serving to be admirable or storied in the sense of being of historic importance.

Consider, though, the human life that isn’t compared to a story. No redemption, no climax, no arcs or ideal growth, no conflict between protagonist and antagonists, no tragedy, no comedy, no plot and no rhyme or reason. To be sure, such a person would continue to suffer, since the world would insist on making its impact, as it were. But the question Bauer might want to reflect on is whether such a life would be meaningful. Can we invest a life with meaning without thinking of the person as striving, in effect, to be a hero in a tale dictated by her ideals?

Suppose, for example, we attribute moral meaning to her and say a person’s life is worthwhile if she attempts to do what’s right. This would raise the question whether we can make sense of morality without telling a grand story. Would we still prefer to behave well if we didn’t think morality is heroic or is commanded by God (by a fictional character in a myth)? If we suspect there is no God and ethics is for failures, we might lose faith in morality precisely because that enterprise would have no support from an inspiring metanarrative.

That’s the problem of what some philosophers call the “postmodern condition.” Many overeducated elites in free societies feel depressed, anxious, and listless because they’re unmoved by established grand narratives. They’ve lost confidence in both religious and secular myths and traditions and they’re skeptical of institutions and authority figures that are supposed to be serving some worthy cause. These rootless populations therefore feel they have no direction, which makes them receptive to demagogues peddling seductive fads and cults.

Or take the Buddhist who learns to relax her attachment to her narrative self, since she believes the things we experience are empty in so far as they’re regarded as separate and independent; instead, those things are only dependent parts of a much greater whole. Is the Buddhist life, then, meaningful? If so, that would seem to be because the Buddhist presupposes a justified goal, after all, namely the avoidance of suffering through selflessness and a lack of cravings or wrongheaded desires. If selfless compassion weren’t better than the delusion of egoism, and the choice to be a Buddhist were only an amoral event that arises in the field of all interdependent natural events, Buddhism would seem to be as pointless as the self-centered person’s suffering that the Buddhist avoids.

The lesson here is that we tell stories to provide meaning and that we do so in spite of the universe’s indifference that threatens to deprive us of any reason to carry on. As far as the universe is concerned, life has no purpose because natural events happen for no planned reason. There’s order in nature which we can rationally explain, but that order has no inherent value. In so far as a person is such a natural thing, the person’s life is likewise pointless. To the extent that we shoulder that cosmic perspective, it’s hard to see how we avoid horror and despair.

For that reason we tell our stories, as illusory or otherwise fictional as they may be. We tell stories to give the mindless, amoral world meaning, to put our stamp on that which is inhuman. And we cling to those stories to avoid falling into an existential morass. Most of all we tell stories about ourselves, which is to say we interpret what happens in light of ideals that figure in the narrative we’d like to unfold for us. Sure, to believe your life is literally and completely a story, as though you were a victim of a Truman show or the Matrix is to be the victim of psychosis or of a religious delusion. Our stories are noble fictions, but that’s not to say they shouldn’t guide us.

To be guided by a story you know is a fiction is to strive to realize that which isn’t factual but which should be. The real world is amoral, alien, and absurd. The world in our stories is how we wish the real world would have been. We can’t fully realize those visions except in art where we decide most of what happens within the artificial boundaries. But if we intend to soldier on despite life’s fundamental absurdity, the least we can do is suspend our disbelief and pretend that when we partially succeed in honouring the ideals exemplified by our favourite stories, those stories aren’t going to waste.

The question may not be whether suffering ennobles us, as Bauer suggests, but whether we can endure the objective absurdity of both pains and pleasures without idealizing, generalizing, projecting and thus interpreting our personal development as though it were storied, as though we were the stars of a show. If we didn’t think life were so important — and only narratives that depart from a cold recitation of the facts make it seem so — how many would bother to keep living?

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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