The Point Is: How’s your story going?
Working on my theory about how we make sense of ourselves, I wanted to hear how others told their stories. I wasn't after life stories of operatic dimension, stories wracked with heroic irony, or graced with saintly purpose. They were people like you and me, whose ages spanned six decades. Start at the beginning, I said, with your earliest memories. Early memories are fascinating and highly suspect. They reach back to when we're three or so, cognitive psychologists tell us. That's when something switches on. Actually, two things switch on at roughly the same time, suggesting that there's a connection between them. We not only start collecting memories, some of which endure, we unconsciously arrange them in a time sequence. We make a story, a narrative, out of them. Voilà! One's life story begins, the saga we “write" inside and share (to some degree) when we're asked and if we're in the mood.
Once those stories were out on the table, I asked a variety of heady questions:
Do you ever think about the so-called meaning of life?
A man in his mid-sixties said that he thinks about the point all the time. He and his wife have taken to reading aloud to each other. When you read serious fiction, he said, you’re always contending with what really matters in life. (That answer earned a gold star in my notebook.)
If your life story were to be narrated, whose voice would you like to hear read it?
A woman in her mid-twenties said Joseph Campbell, explaining that she likes to think of her life in mythological terms, as a kind of journey.
What's missing from your life?
One man, fifty years old, an accountant who lives in a midwestern city, went on and on about how happy he is at work. Career satisfaction, however, isn’t doing much for the rest of his life. He says he knows “happiness comes from the inside,” and yet he has talked repeatedly to a friend, a plastic surgeon, about getting a hair transplant. He keeps putting it off. “It might change people’s perception of me," he says, “but inside I'd still be the same."
When you were growing up, was there a leading character in a book you identified with?
A woman in her early thirties mentioned a book called The Road to Damietta by Scott O’Dell. She said it’s about a young girl who falls in love with Saint Francis, renounces her possessions, cuts off her hair, and ministers to lepers in order to remain close to Francis. She’d found the point.
So what about the road ahead?
A medical student, twenty-seven, is feeling disillusioned. He says he had dreamed of becoming a doctor since childhood. Now that he understands “the business aspects” of medicine, he regrets the decision. He’s bothered by how little time doctors spend with patients; he’s overwhelmed by the debt he’s taken on; he’s physically exhausted. The demands of school are so overwhelming, he says, that he feels guilty devoting what little spare time he has to anything recreational. He’s neither happy nor fulfilled, he says.
Each of those answers marks a moment in time that links to the person's past and holds implications for his or her future. It's where each of the stories stands now. Now is a dot on a trajectory, the curve that starts when we're three or so and begin building our story. Here's the really interesting part, I came to understand after reading some studies. The trajectory's all-important. For it isn't how much happiness or fulfillment we accrue over the course of our allotted run of chapters, it's the direction of that trajectory that influences whether we think our life is "meaningful." If the curve moves onward and upward—like the little painter's here —we'll typically say that we're satisfied and fulfilled (more or less). But if the curve goes the other way, well, that's not so good. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to nudge the plot in the optimal direction, beginning now and before it's late. Accomplishing that is a big part of finding meaning in life, but not quite the entire story. The remaining details are in the book, which I hope you enjoy.