October/November 2011

Editorial: What’s Your Story?

Written by Tom McGuire

“All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.” -Shakespeare

I wonder if anyone else is haunted by the thought that if their life was made into a movie, it would get bad reviews. People often complain that their lives are dull, boring or just plain ordinary. Some decide to fight against this fate by making every moment count, embarking on adventures like base jumping, big wave surfing, risky entrepreneurship or war.

But perhaps movies and books are just an escape, and they must by necessity be larger than life. It’s one thing to make believe from the comfort of your living room sofa, but how many of us would really want to be Jason Bourne? I wonder if most people would prefer to have interesting tales to tell or just eke out a comfortable, quiet, non-eventful existence. Nietzsche’s famous dilemma confronts us with the terror of having regrets: Could you handle living your life over and over again the same way? Every second? We’ve probably all come across the wizened old man who says ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’. Life, despite being full of heartbreak and hangovers, taught them valuable lessons which ‘made me the person I am’.

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose works influenced George Lucas, thought that myths and stories run through every part of our lives. The modern world has not abolished myths, but merely tells the same old stories in different ways. These stories, says Campbell, are so embedded in human consciousness that they can give us fascinating insights into our own life journey. A culture without myth or story is no culture at all.

This issue focuses on the idea that stories form the basis of the self, an idea often connected with ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism is often said to be an attitude in which any overarching theory of life is just another big story or ‘grand narrative’ which grows bigger and seemingly more real as it is perpetually told and re-told. This may at first seem to be empowering to the individual, for we can all tell our own story. But it could also undercut the very basis for genuine individuality, if the conception of ‘self’ is just another weaving together of narrative.

An awful lot hangs on this notion of a self. For if there is no “I”, then who is to blame for any of “my” actions? Who can be applauded? Few would go to the extreme of saying that no selves exist, but there is a tendency in postmodern circles to look at the self as something constructed, imagined, conveniently assembled from mental processes. This runs against the grain of normal, everyday thinking. If there is anything that “I” know, thunders conventional wisdom, it is that “I” exist. But what is this “I” and where is it located?

Many people are uncomfortable with delving too deep in to the nature of the self. Too many comfortable assumptions may be dangerously overturned in the process. Perhaps the real self lies buried deep under numerous layers of pseudo-self: labels, ideas and memories which conceal and confine who we truly are. Or maybe once these layers are peeled away we’d find nothing at all, that the self is only a bundle of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, perceptions and so on.

The idea of the narrative self is not without its own strange dilemmas. Is a life without an independent, detached self like a story without a narrator? And if there is no narrator, then who is telling the story? And for whom is the story being told? Without an audience to monitor our life around the clock, the answer seems to be ‘me’. But this puts the self in a peculiar position, because it seems to be both the watcher of the play and its main participant. Such considerations are puzzling to say the least.

Putting these paradoxes aside, the idea of ‘life as narrative’ should perhaps make us look at our own experience with a lighter touch. I don’t think it means turning everything into a Hollywood drama, but bringing a sense of the transcendent into our everyday existence. A common theme in stories is to find wonder in ‘ordinary’ things. Stories may also give us an appreciation for how unfortunate events can turn out to be for the best. No matter how fictitiously absurd our circumstances, as a character in an epic and mysterious drama we can make life playful, humorous and perhaps even meaningful.