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At moments of sorrow and exhaustion, it is only too easy to look back over the years
and feel that our lives have, in essence, been meaningless. We take stock of just how
much has gone wrong: how many errors there have been; how many unfulfilled plans and
frustrated dreams we’ve had. We may feel like the distraught, damned Macbeth who, on
learning of his wife’s death, exclaims at a pitch of agony that man is a cursed creature
who: …struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. [Life] is
a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. No life can avoid
an intermittently high degree of ‘sound and fury.’ The question is whether it must
also, ultimately, signify nothing. As Macbeth’s lines hint, this will depend on who is telling
it. In the hands of Shakespeare’s (bracingly termed) ‘idiot’, the story of a life may
well turn into unintelligible and dispiriting gibberish. But with sufficient compassion
and insight, we may equally be able to make something different and a great deal more
meaningful and redemptive out of the same material. The
difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the
same set of facts. Only a small number of us ever self-consciously write our autobiographies.
It is a task we associate with celebrities and the very old – but it is, in the background,
a universal activity. We may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them in our
minds nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going
and why events happened as they did. Many of us are strikingly harsh narrators of these
life stories. We hint to ourselves that we’ve been morons from the beginning. We’ve stuffed
up big time. It’s been one disaster after another. That’s how we go about narrating,
especially late at night, when our reserves of optimism run dry and the demons return.
Yet there is nothing necessary about our self-flagellating methods of narration. There could always be
ways of telling very different, far kinder, and more balanced stories from the very same
sets of facts. You could give your life story to Dostoevsky, Proust or Jesus and come out
with a rather bearable, moving, tender and noble story. Good – by which is meant fair-minded
and judicious – narrators know that lives can be meaningful even when they involve a
lot of failure and humiliation. Mistakes do not have to be absurd; they can be signs of
how little information we have on which to base the most consequential decisions. Messing
up isn’t a sign of evil; it’s evidence of what we’re up against. Not all the disasters
were wasted anyway. Maybe we spent a decade not quite knowing what we wanted to do with
ourselves professionally. Maybe we went through a succession of failed relationships that
left us confused and hurt a lot of people. But these experiences weren’t meaningless
because they were necessary to later development and maturity. We needed the career crisis
to understand our working identities; we had to fail at love to fathom our hearts. No one
gets anywhere important in one go. We can forgive ourselves the horrors of our first
drafts. The good storyteller recognises – contrary to certain impressions – that the central
character of the story isn’t always responsible for every calamity or triumph. We are never
the sole authors of anything that happens to us. Sometimes, it really will be the economy,
our parents, the government, our enemies or simply the tragic dimensions of human existence.
Good narrators don’t over-personalise. Every day, we are induced to narrate a bit our life
story to ourselves: we explain why there was pain, why we forgot to seize a chance and
why we’re in an unhappy situation. It does not need to be a tale told by an idiot signifying
nothing. It can be a tale told by a kind, intelligent soul signifying rather a lot:
like almost every life story, it is in truth a tale of a well-intentioned, flawed, partially
blind, self-deceived but ultimately dignified and good human struggling against enormous
odds and, sometimes, on a good day, succeeding just a little in a few areas.
At The School of Life we believe in developing emotional intelligence.
To that end we have also created a whole range of products to support that growth.
Find out more at the link on your screen now.
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How to Narrate Your Life Story

1643 Folder Collection
Precious Annie Liao published on July 10, 2017
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