In the previous entry, I wrote that the telling of our personal stories is part of our quest for meaning. In my research over the years, I have seen individuals from a wide variety of perspectives who have explored the connection between storytelling, identity, and the human being’s search for meaning. So, I thought it might be nice to continue on this theme by presenting some of the diverse voices who speak to these issues.
The philosopher: In the 1870s, German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who studied the connection between story and identity in great depth, espoused the notion that stories are the central defining element of the human personality. It is through their stories that human beings define themselves, their boundaries, and their very sense of the world. Without stories, man has no direction and becomes lost. (See The Birth of Tragedy)
The science fiction writer: In Maps in a Mirror, Orson Scott Card proclaims: “Our very identity is a collection of stories we have come to believe about ourselves.”
The business consultant: Annette Simmons writes that human beings need story to sort out their lives and define who they are, even if they are not conscious of the stories they constantly tell themselves: “People need story to organize their thoughts and make sense of things…They may not be aware of the stories they are telling themselves, but they exist.” (From The Story Factor)
The child psychiatrist: Robert Coles opines that stories are an important device to order one’s life, and that nothing is more central to the human sense of meaning than the narratives we construct and take with us. Throughout life, our stories become the self-fulfilling prophecies that transform us and determine our emerging identity, at any point in time. “They [our stories] change us. In fact, through the emotion of such stories we shape the person we are becoming.” (From The Call of Stories, 1989)
The poet-physician: An accomplished poet as well as a medical doctor, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) often expressed the point of view that stories are our very essence, and our only true source of meaning. For Williams, when all else is stripped away, only our stories remain: “Their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take.” (Quoted by Robert Coles in The Call of Stories)
The Chinese-Canadian novelist: Wayson Choy would concur with William Carlos Williams that our stories are our source of true meaning, all we carry with us, and all that we truly leave behind when we exit this world. As he explained in a speech to one of his audiences: “When we’re gone, if we haven’t left our stories, we haven’t left ourselves. I want each of you to understand that you may have much to leave behind. You have done many things well: you have stocks and bonds, real estate, gold, silver, jewelry. But if you pass all that on, yet don’t leave your stories, you have not left yourself.” (From Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, #26)
The linguist: Charlotte Linde is a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. In her extensive linguistic study of narrative, Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence, she argues that, as human beings, we are defined principally by the stories we tell ourselves. “Narrative”, she writes, “is a significant resource for creating our internal, private sense of self and is all the more a major resource for conveying that self and negotiating that self with others…Life stories express our sense of self: who we are and how we got that way.”
The freelance writer: In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink sums up the relationship between story, identity and meaning quite simply: “We are our stories…That has always been true.”
So, there you have it. Our lives are stories, and stories are life!