By Michael Parker
We are our stories.
Indeed, if you don’t have a story, you don’t have an identity.
We become who we are by cobbling together a more or less coherent narrative constructed out of our remembered past, perceived present and imagined future. If biology represents our common destiny, then narrative represents our unique personal identity.
Oliver Sacks, in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, expresses it this way:
“If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story– his real, inmost story– for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through and in us —through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives—we are each of us unique.”
Our ability to create rich and meaningful lives as adults depends in part on the opportunities we’ve had to develop our own personal stories as children. Indeed, studies suggest that children who have parents or caregivers who listen to them and encourage their storytelling, tend to grow up to be adults with richer and more complex narrative identities. The lack of such opportunities, on the other hand, can be devastating to a child’s ability to develop a coherent sense of self.
I know this first hand. Our daughter, who we adopted from a Russian orphanage when she was already 7, grew up in very dark circumstances. Little is known about her early childhood and what we do know is heart-wrenching.
Seven years ago, lacking a clear sense of identity and having new parents who could not reflect back her identity to her through stories of her early childhood, our daughter began making up the most fantastical stories about herself. Partly, it was to fend off the intrusive questions of curious children. But also, I think, it was to create a bridge that would span the divide between her old and new life. What she was seeking, by fits and starts, was a narrative or story coherent enough to support the arch of her life and to span the vast and cavernous emptiness of her own forgotten or repressed childhood memories.
As our daughter developed in other ways, we noticed that she had trouble constructing coherent accounts of the everyday events she experienced. Unable to tell her own story, she compensated by memorizing vast stretches of other people’s stories: learning by rote an incredible number of songs, stories and films and repeating them to herself and to us like incantations. It was as if she was trying to recapitulate, in the storehouse of her mind, a vast and spiraling assembly of fairy tales, folk songs and bedtime stories that most children receive from parents as their inheritance. And she did so with an intensity and obsessiveness that suggested a race against time. Now she has started to put together patches of narrative by linking everyday events together in coherent and appropriate ways; and in the process, she is becoming herself.
The truth is that we not only have story-shaped lives, we have storied-identities.
And authoring the story of our lives is both a gift and a task.
Whatever we’ve been given or denied in childhood, we need to understand as adults that the richer and more textured our stories and narratives, the thicker our plots and settings, the more complex our characters, and the more fitting the relationship between coincidence, circumstance and agency—the richer, the more meaningful and the more fitting our lives are likely to become.
I say take up the task of becoming who you are.
Become a storyteller.