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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

We create narratives to move us into—and through—the moments of life.

We humans are storytellers. Indeed, that proclivity is a distinguishing feature of our species.

Most animals communicate only about things that are happening in the present, in settings bounded by the range of their senses. Their vocal or “call” systems allow them to indicate when they are hungry, disgruntled, fearful, or desirous of sex. They tell their comrades to “stay back,” “look out,” or “step aside.” In such ways, they coordinate their movements, arrange their hierarchies, feed and protect themselves.

People use vocal commands more expansively. Using systems of arbitrary learned symbols, we talk about occurrences from the past and future as well as from the present. We discuss things that are happening outside the range of our perceptual surround. We ruminate on matters that have never happened, and never will, and then communicate these dreams to our fellows. To that degree, a world of ideas and images parallels the thicket of perceptions that is the context of animal life. Talk stabilizes the behavior of human groups. It coordinates our schemes.

Of special note is our use of stories. These are accounts that describe behaviors over longer stretches of space and time. Sometimes, these stories feature us in prominent roles; sometimes they are about others. At times, the accounts are fictional, even fantastical, in character. Whatever their setting or source, stories serve to capture the attention of listeners. They make imagination external, and thus collective, in its implications. They illustrate the perils of existence as well as the rewards of properly considered behaviors. In part, we tell stories to alert others to pertinent goings-on. The other part of our intention is to reaffirm our own status as persons worth noting, who have wisdom to offer our listeners.

Throughout history, people customarily have told stories to one another in public, often face-to-face, encounters. Our modern world has extended this process through culturally mediated forms: letters, books, newspapers, magazines, movies, television, computers, and the sort. In such ways, story making becomes mass-produced, distributed, and consumed. Millions access the same accounts and circulate opinions of what they have witnessed. Media figures (think of politicians, comedians, actors, and newscasters) tell us what they think we want to know. All too often, these celebrities seem more trustworthy or “credible” than the people we interact with on a daily basis. Routinely, we tell those flesh-and-blood others what we have heard the celebrity-authorities say and gain some status for ourselves as secondary-communicants.

As important as these modern developments may be, individual persons continue to be critically important dispensers of information, especially about matters that affect their circle of social contacts. Sometimes, that information is quite fragmentary (a weather report we’ve heard, an account of a street closing or an accident, news of an illness, birth, death, divorce, and so forth). Occasionally, we produce lengthy narratives of the matters at hand. Warming to the task, we tell our listeners the details of what occurred, its potential causes and consequences, the responses of those involved, their presumed personal or social qualities, and indeed, any other relevancy that seems to hold the interest of those before us. We are most authoritative about events that involve us directly (for how can persons not “there” challenge those interpretations without insulting our character?). People trust us also when we claim to be on intimate terms (close friends or family perhaps) with the key actors. As most of us would say, knowledge is its own form of power, which we selectively use with others.

In this essay, I consider a particular instance of storytelling, our longer-term “autobiographical” accounts of who we have been, are currently, and aspire to be. All of us, or so I believe, develop and present such life stories. Commonly, we offer these narratives when we first meet someone, in order to guide their thinking about who we are and how they should treat us. We also provide stories when we are undergoing significant life changes. Pointedly, we want others to know that what we are doing is not a scattered, inconsistent, or unworthy affair but instead something that we are managing in a purposeful, considered way.

Of course, other people are not the only recipients of these stories; we also present them to ourselves.

In one of my university courses, I used to ask students to write short “sociological biographies” of themselves. Those accounts were to include relevant historical details of their lives, factors that contributed (positively or negatively) to their current circumstances, important people in their lives, significant “turning points” in that development, and the complex of values that seemed to guide their trajectory. In addition, the students interviewed people from their own generation – and from other generations – to learn how they responded to the same questions.

I should report that most people, although they were grateful to others for the guidance they had received, celebrated their own role in the creation of their lives. There was variation in what those people said about themselves (attributable to circumstances of generation, gender, ethnicity, class, and other factors). In almost all cases, however, people were able to produce relatively coherent accounts of who they were and how they became such.

Although most of us (at least in this culture) like to imagine ourselves distinctive or exceptional in some way, it is important that we tell our life stories in terms that others will recognize and approve of. Pointedly, we – and they – are aware of the criteria by which society judges a life worthy and well-considered. If this society values certain things – perhaps self-determination, fairness to others, career commitment, love of family, support for friends, financial probity, an adventurous spirit, and the like – then our tale should resonate with these themes. When cultural values conflict (perhaps financial probity versus adventurousness) we should emphasize the themes that suit us. At any rate, we should appear to be people who are living life on our own (though not too eccentric) terms.

For the same reasons, we usually spare our listeners accounts of our more idiosyncratic behaviors, licentious or immoral affairs, private musings, oddball schemes, and foolish remarks. We tend to de-emphasize some of our worst decisions. We usually give broad-brush treatment to significant personal failures or tragedies, so that listeners know to respect the boundaries we have established around those events. Just as we do not want them to think of us as sketchy characters, so we do not want them to “pity” us (again, that condition being one that most people in this society try to avoid).

As the reader might emphasize, we tell somewhat different stories to different people. After all, storytelling is essentially an act of communication. We expect different listeners to have different interests and social sensibilities. Who talks to their mother or father in exactly the same way as they do to their peers? Indeed, who talks to their mother and father in exactly the same terms? In that context, we tend to tread carefully around certain issues – politics and religion for starters – that we know will set off a chain of accusations and hard feelings in certain people. Some persons, typically those we know and trust and who we otherwise feel close to, get the fullest versions of who we are. But we may also tell revealing truths to strangers who do not know us and who will never see us again (like seatmates on a train or plane).

Do we always tell the truth? Most of us know people who lie blatantly, often in attempts at self-aggrandizement. The rest of us, I believe, “spin” our tales, like a good public relations agent whose client is ourselves. Better to offer quasi-truths about our doings, or just to omit certain details, than to be caught prevaricating. Reputation is difficult to establish and delicate to manage. An artless lie can destroy all that in an instant.

These processes of identity management can be especially problematic when we are making life changes. A good friend of mine, a fellow professor, studied people who were involved in extra-marital affairs. What he learned was that such people exercise all manner of ingenuity to make what they are doing seem like a good thing. New love and commitment is a resounding theme; so is the importance of self-realization. Curiously, their duplicitous treatment of their spouse (who is commonly portrayed as neglectful, abusive. or just uncomprehending) is presented as a beneficial, or at least reasonable, activity. Ultimately, the person left behind will be freed from a loveless marriage, much as the adulterers are now freeing themselves.

Other life transitions get similar treatment. Workers who have been fired typically emphasize the injustice of that circumstance instead of their own role in the dismissal. Retirees tend to celebrate how they have been released from all the worries and constraints of their working years. The fact that they now have less income, status, colleagueship, or just a place to go each day receives less emphasis. The birth of a child, anticipated or not, is usually deemed a wonderful, even ennobling thing. Surely, it is that; but it can also be an occasion for loneliness, depression, overwork, and personal disorientation. To take another example, not much can be said to soften the shocks of severe illness or injury. But some of us try to achieve this very effect, by stressing the chance to reexamine life, evaluate health practices, or even chart new pathways.

None of us wants to be seen as the villain of our own, or of other people’s, lives. Quite the opposite, we want to be regarded well. The stories we tell are attempts to maintain that respect. Even our confessions of failure are equally efforts to show that we are repentant, that we are good people at heart for whom the current malfeasance is mostly an irregularity.

Although we court the good regard of other people, perhaps the truer audience of our pleading is ourselves. Our stories, strategically produced, give us confidence that we are doing the right thing. They restore belief that the life choices we have made are proper ones. They grant continuity to life’s fitful challenges. They help us stay clear-minded about our commitments. And they ready us for the important changes that move us from one identity to the next.

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