“How you arrange the plot points of your life into narrative shapes who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human.” This is the subtitle in an interesting article titled Life’s Stories, published in The Atlantic in 2015. In that article, Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah, offered much insight on this subject. She stated: “In order to have relationships, we’ve all had to tell little pieces of our story.”
We share our life stores every day. In just our greetings with others, here are some examples of that: “Hi, where are you from?” “Where did you grow up?” “Which school did you attend?”
Recently, I watched a salesperson standing at the entrance of a store in a local mall, making eye contact and smiling as people passed by. A lady said hello back, and the two of them walked into the store together. I was nearby and overheard what happened next. The salesperson greeted the customer, asking where she was from, and received a smile and a reply in return. She mentioned a town in California where she grew up, and the salesperson replied with enthusiasm as she knew the town well. They reminisced about a street they shared in common. Both women relaxed and enjoyed getting to know each other. It was clear they had made a connection by sharing part of their life story.
We see our own lives as a series of events, connecting the events with narrative that then becomes a story, our story. The resulting story, that we to a large degree have constructed, has a great deal to do with our self-identity.
In the last twenty-plus years I had the opportunity to tell my own life story in front of a church group of men at least twenty times. Each time I shared my story, it was always a little different, as I added, changed, or withheld certain details or events. I had thought more about the story, had new experiences, and my memory altered with the time that passed. Yes, I was recalling it differently because I would reflect on events and see them in a new light.
In that same time frame, I heard a few dozen men present their life story and then often heard them tell their story again after a few years. The emphasis, substance, and even conclusions of their stories changed for them, as my own had changed with each new telling.
Life stories are like books. They have plots, themes, timelines, and characters. We choose which of these are important to us and we connect these events in a narrative, shaping and reshaping our self-identity. Art, music, poetry, literature, service, our heritage and even food can influence us even to the point of being part of our life story.
People come and go in our lives, some becoming significant characters in our story as events unfold, but then later in life seem less important. We look back at these people, filtering all we have been through with our memories. Indeed, the anonymous poem opening this book suggests that, “Some people come into our lives for a reason, some for a season, and some for a lifetime.” Some feel God sends the people that are needed. Others who may come bring challenges and darkness. I believe we have a choice in putting together the narrative of who we are, and who we become. We can pick which of the events we connect with, what we conclude about them, and then weave and reweave them into our story. Finding or choosing a better perspective later in life can make all the difference.
If we reject the case for being able to reshape who we are, then we are left with a deterministic view of our identity. Some who embrace this belief claim that people are wired to be what they are. This view says that since we didn’t choose our parents, or the time or place where we were born, we are therefore programmed by cause and effect, resulting in our current circumstances.
It seems clear that this deterministic view is false. All you have to do is tell your story to a friend or family member, or even write down how you see things now, and then do the same again in a year’s time. Your story will be different.