against narratives

I grew up subsisting on stories. During all of elementary school I kept a book on my lap and read while the teacher talked. If I wasn’t consuming narratives I was creating them—daydreaming intensely, making up elaborate stories in my head. 

For a long time I would default to a kind of narrative playacting in every situation, trying to autopredict my own life. When I was 16 and had a crush on a boy, I would come with hypothetical scenarios about how it would play out: we would have a conversation after school at a club event, then we would walk home together, then he would message me to get coffee, then we would hold hands... I didn’t know what the hero’s journey was called, but I already knew its plot points by heart: call to action, threshold, challenges and temptations, abyss, transformation. It was always gratifying to predict the narrative correctly. Sometimes things happened exactly as I thought they would. But often they didn’t, and then I’d be disappointed and have to adjust the narrative to account for the setback, hoping that the story would get back on course.

This narrative thinking was damaging in a way I didn’t realize: I was more engaged with the narrative than I was with my actual life. I lived half in reality, half in my head, and I was crushed when real life didn’t line up with the story in my head. The problem was that I didn’t know any other way to be. To say narrative thinking is encouraged in Western society is a huge understatement: it’s often presented as the only valid way to approach life. Galen Strawson’s 2014 piece (thanks Ryan for sending) unpacks this really well:

Abstract

I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative” . . . this narrative is us, our identities’ (Oliver Sacks); ‘self is a perpetually rewritten story . . . in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives’ (Jerry Bruner); ‘we are all virtuoso novelists. . . . We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character . . . of that autobiography is one’s self’ (Dan Dennett). The second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively, or as a story; a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story’ (Charles Taylor). A person ‘creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative – a story of his life’, and must be in possession of a full and ‘explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person’ (Marya Schechtm)

In this piece, Strawson argues against two things: 1) the empirical claim that human life must be experienced as a narrative and 2) the belief that we should try to construct narratives—that they’re good for us and our psychological development.

Essentially, he’s attempting to take down a belief that characterizes many people’s lives: the idea that we need to experience life as a story for it to be meaningful. Most people are so wedded to narratives that they can’t imagine living without one: they’re novelists of their own life, trying to construct a plot arc that seems excited or good or ethical. They argue that if you have no narrative you have no identity. But like Strawson, I don’t believe that’s true:

Unlike Rees, I have a perfectly good grasp of myself as having a certain personality, but I’m completely uninterested in the answer to the question ‘What has GS made of his life?’, or ‘What have I made of my life?’. I’m living it, and this sort of thinking about it is no part of it. This does not mean that I am in any way irresponsible. It is just that what I care about, in so far as I care about myself and my life, is how I am now. The way I am now is profoundly shaped by my past, but it is only the present shaping consequences of the past that matter, not the past as such

There is a self without narrative, but I’m not surprised that many people believe we only exist as stories. The more you narrativize, the bigger the role the narrative plays in your life. So it makes sense that someone who narrates their life inside their head constantly believes there’s no other way to experience life: it’s literally all they know. Joan Didion starts The White Album with the oft-quoted line We tell ourselves stories in order to live. What people miss when they repeat the line is that this isn’t a celebration of narrative, but rather an observation that we use narrative to console ourselves in face of the chaos of life. We force things to make sense when they don’t.

I think we experience far more flow when we don’t narrativize. A lot of Buddhist thought addresses this, but The Surrender Experiment is also a really interesting example of a book that unpacks this idea. The author, Michael A. Singer, has a spiritual awakening—what Maslow would call a peak experience—and then decides to live a life that’s entirely free of narrativization. He tells no story about himself and tries his best to surrender. How he describes it:

“I had to be brave enough to follow the invisible into the unknown. And that is exactly what I was doing. It’s not that surrender gave me clarity about where I was going—I had no idea where it would lead me. But surrender did give me clarity in one essential area: my personal preferences of like and dislike were not going to guide my life. By surrendering the hold those powerful forces had on me, I was allowing my life to be guided by a much more powerful force, life itself”

Most people believe that if we let go of narrative we can’t move forward in our lives. But Singer thinks we don’t need a story: we can progress effectively just by doing the thing that seems most compelling at every point. Instead of acting in accordance to your narrative preferences, you simply do the thing that’s tugging you forward. In his book he describes how he advances in both his software career and his spiritual practice despite having no agenda and no plan. At the very least he’s been a very successful spiritual author (about 5000 people have recommended his book The Untethered Soul to me), so clearly you don’t need narrative thinking to do cool things with your life.

In Strawson’s paper, he makes a distinction between what he calls “Diachronistic” and “Episodic” styles of being:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that

[D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future

– something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative in their outlook on life.

If one is Episodic, by contrast,

[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the (further) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.

Strawson argues that being Episodic is a perfectly good way to go through life. He describes his own experience:

I need to say more about the Episodic life, and since I find myself to be relatively Episodic, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.

That’s one way to put it – to speak in terms of limited interest. Another way is to say that it seems clear to me, when I am experiencing or apprehending myself as a self, that the remoter past or future in question is not my past or future, although it is certainly the past or future of GS the human being. This is more dramatic, but I think it is equally correct, when I am figuring myself as a self. I have no significant sense that I – the I now considering this question – was there in the further past. And it seems clear to me that this is not a failure of feeling. It is, rather, a registration of a fact about what I am – about what the thing that is currently considering this problem is.

(When I read this I immediately thought of Parfit’s remarks on identity over time and William James’ pure sciousness, but will save that for another essay).

It’s been a project of mine in the past couple of years to move into a more Episodic way of living—that is, to experience myself as existing purely in the present moment without emotional ties to the past or future. To a lot of people this is unimaginable, especially if you’re trying to live a life filled with actions and accomplishments, but I believe it’s actually more effective. Instead of being controlled by a rigid idea of how things should be, you can pursue continuous excavation.

You might find it strange that I don’t believe life is “text all the way down,” since I write and narrativize my life constantly. But narrating after the fact is very different from narrating in the moment. Clearly, I’m still capable of constructing narratives—I can present a narrative of the future to someone else (over the next year, I’m going to do x and y…), I can reinterpret my past as a narrative (I grew up in Vancouver, then moved to SF, then I…), and I can tell stories when I’m writing both fiction and non-fiction—but I don’t want to experience my life as a narrative of my own making. I want to engage with it as pure experience.

William James defines “pure experience” as “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats.” Robert Pirsig (whom you may know from Zen and the Art of Writing A Book Every Guy in Silicon Valley Loves) calls it “dynamic quality”: “the cutting edge of reality, recognized before it is conceptualized.” I think of pure experience as the way you feel when you’re skiing or running, kissing the guy you like in a darkened room for the first time—it’s pre-intellectual, purely sensory. There’s no narrative framework, just every part of you swallowed by the experience as it unfolds.

Most of us immediately subject pure experience to narrative processing, but you don’t need to do that. You can choose to experience every event through the lens of narrative, or you can choose to reject it and live a life that’s not organized or confined by mental stories—to live an unstoried life.

People grow up strongly wedded to their narratives, but crumble when life diverges from them. We all know overachievers in high school who become depressed in college, or people in grad school who’ve put enormous energy into pursuing a particular path only to realize it doesn’t make them happy. Even if you don’t want to live a completely unstoried life, it’s important to able to separate identity and narrative: you’re more resilient if you realize you have value separate of your story. Going back to Didion—telling stories to cope with chaos works up to a certain point, but there are things that will happen in your life that render every story redundant.

The experience of consciousness radically differs depending on how you approach it. You could, if you wanted, experience your life as a wide-open sea of experience instead of a narrow river leading to one destination. What if the way to live a better story was to stop narrativizing constantly?

Strawson:

Certainly Narrativity is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life’ (nor is Diachronicity), and it is in any case most unclear that the examined life, thought by Socrates to be essential to human existence, is always a good thing. People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project.