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Interview: Cultivating Our Stories


In The Stories We Are: An Essay on Self-Creation, award-winning gerontologist William Randall examines life as story. This remarkable volume reveals why our personal story may be our most precious possession, especially as we get older.

Dr. William Randall

Dr. William Randall

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Randall at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., Canada.

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

Bill Randall: 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, 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: And the story I have about my life affects the way I live it?

BR: That’s right. 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: The book explains how life’s "slings and arrows" can "de-story" us.

BR: 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: You say our story may be our most precious possession, especially the older we get. How so?

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.
bookcover - the stories we are
RD: Finally, you emphasize the potential of a good strong story to foster personal resilience.

BR: 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.

Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of the original article that appeared in AHB September/October 2012 with the headline: Creating Meaning From the Stories of Our Lives.