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Interview: Creating Meaning From the Stories of Our Lives

 

Dr. William Randall

Dr. William Randall


In The Stories We Are: An Essay on Self-Creation (University of Toronto Press), gerontologist William Randall examines life as story. This remarkable volume points to the complexity, mystery and poetry of life, and it reveals why our personal story may be our most precious possession, especially as we get older.

Dr. Randall is professor of gerontology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., Canada, where he also director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative. His research has giving rise to numerous publications and several books on narrative gerontology, which views aging as a creative process of fashioning meaning and wisdom from the stories of our lives. He is listed in 2000 Outstanding Scholars of the 20th Century.

AHB reached Dr. Randall in Fredericton.

Ruth Dempsey: Why did you want to study the act of self-creation?

Bill Randall: I was a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and I needed a topic for my dissertation that was really exciting and that would wake me up in the middle of the night and say, "write me."

At the time, I had just finished a decade as a parish minister with the United Church of Canada, during which time I listened to lots of people’s stories. That’s a big part of the job, as you can imagine. And I knew instinctively that something important happens – with respect to insight into ourselves – when we feel we’re being deeply and respectfully listened to by another person, whether a friend, a counselor or even a stranger on the train.

I was eager to think in more depth about what this telling/listening process entails; indeed, what does "my story" even mean? And how is that story linked to what psychologists call "identity", or to the "self"?

While in divinity school, I had become fascinated with what was referred to loosely in the mid-70s as "narrative theology". A core insight of narrative theology is that, whatever else it might be, religious belief concerns "master narratives" about the world – and by implication, ourselves – that we buy into as true and by which seek to live our lives.

Also, early on in my doctoral studies I became interested in the concept of creativity, in particular of self-creativity, as well as the nature of so-called lifelong learning. One day, it hit me. By linking together these three concepts: self, creativity and learning, I could resurrect my academic interest in narrative theology and focus my thesis on the familiar metaphor of "the story of my life".

My research question became: In what ways do we create ourselves through the stories, which in memory and imagination, we weave and re-weave about our lives?

The title I gave to what resulted from wrestling with this question was: The stories we are: An essay on the poetics of self-creation.

RD: Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says we make our stories up as we go.

BR: When I read Mary Catherine Bateson’s delightful volume entitled Composing a Life, it struck me that living a life is ultimately an aesthetic process, as connoted by the expression you sometimes hear: the art of living. If you will, we’re all involved, consciously or not and more or less "successfully", in making something of our life

We’re involved, in other words, in what is basically a creative process. The raw materials for which include our built-in personality traits, the unique memories and dreams we carry around inside us, the ups and downs of our life, the friendships we have along the way and the influence, positive or negative, of the family, culture, gender or creed in which we are rooted.

We take all of this and somehow, somewhere deep within us, fashion a life course and a lifestyle and a philosophy of life that distinguishes us as uniquely us. And we do all of this on the fly, as they say in the hockey world. We do it in an improvisational manner, as Bateson would put it, making it up as we go – literally making ourselves up.

According to narrative psychologists Dan McAdams, Donald Polkinghorne and many others, though, self is at bottom a narrative construction. In other words, we don’t, we can’t, experience ourselves apart from the tangle of stories – or factions – that we carry around inside us at any given time concerning who we are, where we’ve come from and where it is we’re going.

A good example of this would be when someone asks you to tell them a bit about yourself. What do you do? Do you trot out a bunch of facts about, say, your height and weight and birth date? No. Sooner or later, you end up telling them some version or other of what, deep inside you, you think of as the story of your life: "I was born in New Brunswick, went to school in the States, was a minister for many years and then found my way into gerontology." In other words, you tell them a little story.

RD: My life is also shaped by the stories others tell about me . . .

BR: That leads me to the point that "my story" is always in part a function of what I guess to be the stories about me that other people tell or entertain concerning who I am.

An example would be when we are kids growing up in a particular family. If I overhear my mother telling someone else that "Billy is a good little boy, but I worry about him sometimes because he’s not very adventurous, kind of passive really", then that story that she seems to have about who I really am will shape my inner story of myself to some degree inevitably. Either I will buy into it as the truth, or resist it and do my darnedest to belie it.

The same goes with my other relationships. Who I experience "me" to be, for better or worse, is partly a function of who I think my friends and colleagues, my husband, wife, children, etc., think I am.

In a similar way, the story that each of them has of themselves will be affected to some degree by the story that they assume is at work in my mind about them. Narratively speaking, in other words, our lives are incredibly intertwined, and where "my story" begins and "your story" ends can, technically, be impossible to say. If you like, we’re continually co-authoring one another.

RD: This story I have about my life affects the way I live it. How so?

BR: If I think deep down that my story is basically that of a loser – that everything I do, or every relationship I have, is ultimately jinxed, and that nothing good lies in my future – then, sooner or later, that inner story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And more than likely I will lose. It’s the power of negative thinking.

In effect, the story I believe is the story I live. Psychotherapists know this, of course, and at bottom what they endeavor to do with clients in the grips, say, of depression is to help them re-story in a more positive direction. The field known as "narrative therapy" revolves around just such insights: it’s not the person that has "a problem," that is, so much as it’s a problematic story that has the person.

The aim of the therapeutic process in this sense, then, is to open the person’s story up, to get it moving in a forward direction, and thus to combat what some of us are calling "narrative foreclosure".

Narrative foreclosure can be defined as the premature conviction that my life story has effectively ended, that no new chapters, subplots, themes, relationships and discoveries lie in store for me.

At the risk of sounding ageist, I would venture to say that a lot of older adults (upon retirement, for instance) succumb to a measure of foreclosure, and are in need of developing – with the help of good listeners – what I’ve called a good strong story.

RD: You say we become characters in our own life story . . .

BR: I think that inside of us – in the underlying story by which we define our identity – are a number of different characters.

You see, it’s really a very complex and ever-changing story that’s inside of us with numerous subplots, themes and chapters, not to mention traces of other people’s stories about us and traces of larger stories with which we’ve identified over the years.

This is why I entitled my book the stories (not the story) we are. And I think it makes sense to say that I have a number of characters within me, a number of sub-personalities or different sides of me, that I move in and out of, depending on the situation or the people with whom I’m interacting.

It’s not that I’m schizophrenic or have Multiple Personality Disorder, but rather that I’m normal. For story-wise, there will always be many different "me’s" at work within me. And each person I interact with, each friend I get together with, etc., will bring out a slightly different side of me, such that I feel my me-ness a little (maybe a lot!) differently when I’m in their presence . . . because of the story of me with which I perceive them to be operating inside their own minds.

RD: Instead of life stages, you talk about different chapters?

BR: Personality psychologists routinely think of our development as unfolding according to certain identifiable "stages". Sometimes they’re linked to specific ages and sometimes they’re not. I prefer the notion of chapters because stage theorists tend to think in terms of development in general.

The notion of chapters allows for the unique experience of the individual within the context of their own lifetime. When I ask workshop participants to divide their life up into different chapters, most of them can do so quite readily:

  • Chapter 1 – growing up;
  • Chapter 2 – getting an education;
  • Chapter 3 – going off to war;
  • Chapter 4 – raising a family, and so on.

And of course, within each chapter are any number of sub-chapters, but ultimately all of them will be unique to my experience.

My point is that, unlike stage approaches to understanding development, the concept of chapters respects that each person story is ultimately unique – or novel, as I’m fond of putting it. Indeed, "Everyone’s life is worth a novel", to quote the French author, Gustave Flaubert.

RD: And life’s "slings and arrows" can threaten to "de-story" us. How is that?

BR: Yes, life’s slings and arrows can certainly be devastating: a diagnosis of cancer, for example, or a stroke or the loss of a spouse. These are painful for us because they undermine the cherished narrative by which we’ve been living our lives to date. In that respect, they do indeed de-story us.

But other people can de-story us as well. In a healthcare setting, to take but one example, if none of the staff ever take the time to listen to me, to learn something about my own unique story, to give me a bit of narrative care and not just medical care, then before I know it I will find I’m scripted into the role of "patient" or, worse still, "the gallbladder in room 13B".

That’s soul de-storying for sure, and it’s an example of narrative foreclosure that (with the best of intentions, no doubt) gets foisted upon us by others, by the system and by the powers that be.

RD: Our personal story may be our most precious possession, especially the older we get.

BR: The older we get, the thicker we become, narratively speaking, due to the simple fact that we’ve been around longer than our younger friends and family members. In other words, there are simply more events, more characters, more themes, more settings and more subplots at work in the story of our life.

Another way of saying this is that we have greater "biographical capital", in which case perhaps later life can be thought of as a time to draw on the interest that has accumulated, to harvest the wisdom and insight that has been building quietly inside our story over the years.

The reason I say that our story may be our most precious possession is that, let’s face it, with later life can come lots and lots of changes and losses in our circumstances – loss of mobility, loss of partner, and loss of independence. But as for our story? As the song goes, "No, they can’t take that away from me."

Or can they? Dementia would seem to represent the ultimate example of de-storying – unless, that is, others are open to exercising narrative care towards me, and piecing together and honouring my story on my behalf.

RD: More recently, you looked at the potential of a good strong story to foster personal resilience (online in The Gerontologist April 26, 2012) . . .

BR: Yes, my hunch for some time has been that what distinguishes those individuals who seem able not just to cope with the changes and challenges of later life but to, if you like, grow through them is having what I call "a good strong story" about themselves and their world.

When I think of such a story, though, I don’t mean "strong" in the sense of rigid, unbending or egocentric. Rather, a good strong story is strong in the way that, say, an elm tree or an oak tree is strong, with its many branches, its roots reaching down in all directions, and its gift of bending gracefully to wind and storm.

As to what we can each do to develop such a story? Among other things, we can join a life writing group, or a guided autobiography group or a reminiscence group and, in the course of writing, telling and sharing our life story with supportive listeners, we’ll become more aware of and reflect on some of those stories which, over the years, have become especially central to our sense of self.

In this way, I believe, we can achieve a greater measure of self-acceptance (so important in later life). We can make more sense of painful episodes in our past and open ourselves to the wisdom that lies in our own unique narratives.

In the process, our stories become thicker inside of us. If you will, we stretch them – through the connections we experience with the stories of others. This reduces our sense of isolation and helps us feel that in the end, we’re part of a larger process.

My point is that our own unique story is never about us alone. Rather, through it and by going more deeply into it, we tap into the broader human or even the cosmic story. This helps to lighten up our hearts, such that we can bring a healthy sense of irony and even humor to those slings and arrows we mentioned earlier.