On stories, meaning, and “losing the plot”

On stories, meaning, and “losing the plot”

As a student of personal stories, I have long been fascinated by the British expression that an individual has “lost the plot”, to signify that the person has gone insane, or that his life has come unravelled.

Of course, if it is true that we define ourselves with our personal stories of identity, then the converse must be true as well. The narrative we construct for ourselves is the thread we follow from one day to the next.  Following this thread allows us to construct meaning.  Individuals who go insane have simply lost their storylines, or “lost the plot”.

When we lose our stories, we lose our roots, our connection to the earth and to life.  To discover we have no story is to acknowledge that our existence is meaningless.

Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s sentimental fantasy, dramatizes the concept that human beings, disconnected from stories, become lost.  Peter Pan describes himself as a lost boy who has not been told stories; that is why he can’t grow up to inhabit stories of his own, as other boys do.  In other words, he cannot become an adult because he lacks the narrative tools.  At one point he tells his friend Wendy, “You see I don’t know any stories.  None of the lost boys know any stories.” And, Wendy responds sadly, “How perfectly awful!”

Peter goes on to explain, in allegorical form, the universal appeal and fascination of stories for all creatures of the earth: “Do you know why swallows build in the eaves of houses?  It is to listen to the stories”.

According to Sam Keen, co-author of Your Mythic Journey (1989), when we lose our stories, we simply lose our way. He describes human beings as “repositories of stories”, and asserts that these stories are so central to identity that “when we forget our stories…we feel nameless and empty.”

In 2006, I happened to see a segment of “Larry King Live” on CNN, where the host was interviewing various experts in the field of suicide, around this question: What is it that leads an individual to take his own life, and what patterns can we identity in those that do?  One of those questioned was the well-known forensic psychiatrist Keith Ablow, who commented that he had spent many years researching these very questions.  Ablow explained the phenomenon of suicide completely in terms of personal stories: “I think the thing that binds together most people who go on to take their lives is that they have an inability to imagine the next chapter in their life stories.”

Given my interest in personal stories of identity, Larry King’s interview with Ablow struck a true chord with me, and I have always remembered this response.  It reminds me to what extend we are indeed our stories.  When we lose our personal stories, when we “lose the plot”, a feeling of meaninglessness can result, and the consequences can indeed be dire.

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