Are We Just Our Stories?

Is narrative inherent in human life or imposed on it? Is a person’s life just a story? Or is story a device we place on someone’s life to try to get a hold of it? Some while ago I thought about that after doing a number of personal profiles for the Chicago Tribune. One such profile was on a rabbi who was a tour guide in Israel and whose parents were Holocaust survivors; another was on a Filipino immigrant and his latest business venture in Chicago. In my articles, I introduced these individuals by describing them and quoting from them, but you can’t do profiles without detailing also the when and what of their lives. In the case of the rabbi that was especially true since the theme of that particular article was how a series of unexpected occurrences had strung her life together. But is life essentially a chronology or is it finally not a temporally defined experience at all?

As I was pondering this, the questions I had were fleshed out even more when I ran across an issue of The New Yorker that talked about Robert McKee. McKee is a real-life person who was portrayed in the film Adaptation. McKee runs workshops for aspiring screenwriters, helping them develop effective storylines. This film, which starred Nicholas Cage, won wide acclaim a couple of years ago and was an intriguing examination of questions related to life and story. In the film, Nicholas Cage’s character asks McKee (portrayed by actor Brian Cox) these kinds of questions: How is life like and unlike a story? Why do certain kinds of storytelling conventions resonate with audiences? How does life amount to what happens and how does life transcend what happens?

The New Yorker article about this subject quoted also Barbara Hardy as saying, “We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.” The article continues by noting that people like McKee seem persuaded that real life has the shape of a story–there are third acts, even if they may have a secondact air about them. “Yes, there are turning points, and points when the curtain comes down–tada!–then the thing starts again.” For all McKee’s gloom, and his love of stories in which grown men cry, he is driven by a kind of melancholy optimism: “Hopefully, you can live in a way so that you can die with the notion that, on balance, the sense of achievement outweighs the regret.” In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes what he calls an “inciting incident.” The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance, “launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.”

But is this really who we are or what we are about? Are we really just the sum of our “inciting incidents,” our achievements and failures, our loves and partings? Or is the human person something else, something more, something whose essence these narrative models only begin to explore? For example, you could say a person is defined by her relationships with other people and with God, by her personality traits, by her thoughts, by her emotions. When she dies, those are the most important measurements of what has been lost. And perhaps the elements of achievement and progression in McKee’s narrative archetypes are empty exercises whose worth does not match the dread of death. But as the film Adaptation asks, why do we need a story? Why isn’t human life compelling enough all by itself without some sense of progression, without a narrative arc?

McKee often sketches out the “Classical Design” model: stories with causality, closed endings, linear time, an external conflict, a single, active protagonist. The way he talked about himself suggested that McKee’s own fear of death shaped him the same way he claimed it shapes characters. “I cannot be a character in a bad movie. I can’t be,” he says. Naturally, none of us wants to star in a bad movie if that “movie” is our very life. But are we just the sum of our stories? Are we no more than the total of what happens to us year to year, day to day? If we know the high points and low points of someone’s narrative, does it follow that we truly know that person? Perhaps not. To know another person, story alone won’t cut it. Perhaps it could be claimed that truly understanding a person is not just knowing his or her story but discerning a person’s true character through noting how he or she deals with the narrative (good, bad, or otherwise) that unfolds across the drama of each human life.

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and writes the weekly “On Language” column in the Chicago Tribune. His first book, Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Connecting This Life To The Next, has just been released by P&R Publishing (www.bringingheaven.com).