Last Tuesday’s (5/22) New York Times Science Times gave a new twist to the old feel-good saw about it never being too late to have a happy childhood. In “This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It),” Benedict Carey reports psychologists have discovered (what took them so long?…) that the stories we continually construct about our lives shape how we think not only about our past but also about our future.
Telling a story turns out to be a space to think with, organizing the way we see, evaluate, and plan our lives. Even so simple an act as shifting from first person to third person narrative (remember Nixon’s habit of doing this?—“Nixon is opposed to that,” rather than “I am opposed to that”) turns out to have a significant effect on how we see things. In a series of experiments, people who were asked to tell their stories in the third rather than the first person were more able to let go of what they previously viewed as past mistakes and humiliations, instead of continuing to painfully identify with them. As a result, they were also able to see their future lives more positively.
It’s not hard to see why this is so. Storytelling is a universal cultural practice that provides different ways of ordering and making sense of experience. First-person accounts of a negative experience tend to take the form of a confession where the emphasis is on the truth of what happened and our own responsibility for it. Telling a story in the third person grants us the distance and measure of control typically possessed by the author of a fictional narrative over its characters and events, encouraging us to recognize that things can be presented in varying lights and lead to different future outcomes.
In other words, in certain regards the narrative space itself thinks for us, variously strengthening or weakening elements such as identification with the main protagonist, responsibility for what occurred, distance, freedom to shift the plot line, and ability to transform future prospects. There’s more to it than that, however. The stories energetic and socially involved people told about their lives also turned out to invoke “distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances…. [these] narrative themes are…driving factors in people’s behavior.” Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self, suggests that, consciously or unconsciously, people draw on these cultural themes in making major life decisions. In other words, in addition to universal modes of storytelling, there are also culturally specific idea-spaces—myths and narrative themes—that also shape how we think and talk about ourselves.
On a related topic, in Forbes 90th anniversary issue (May 7, “The Power of Networking,”), Sherry Turkle, discussing what she terms “virtuality and its discontents,” worries that “We are learning to see ourselves as cyborgs, at one with our devices.” This may have its advantages, but the downside is that it’s becoming easier to express intimacy in the virtual world of online life than in real life, granting us “the illusion of companionship without the demands of sustained, intimate friendship.” She’s especially worried our cell-phone dominated youth culture is leaving adolescents unable to cultivate the ability to be alone with themselves or to engage in self-reflection. “When interchanges are reduced to the shorthand of emoticon emotions, questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are you?’ are reformatted for the small screen and flattened out in the process.” What seems to be happening is that in our accelerated, digitally mediated stimulation culture, the idea-spaces our technologies create don’t just think for us, they feel for us too. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, the medium isn’t just the message, it’s the massage…