The day has meaning only insofar as it unites my past with my future. I can live this day fully only if I understand it as part of my whole story. —John Dewey
It was impossible to give the reason the marriage had ended: among other things a Marriage is a system of belief, a story…the impulse that drives it is mysterious. —Rachel Cusk
I was having coffee with a friend, a Phycologist twenty-years in practice, and I asked him if he noticed any commonality among all his diverse clients seeking counseling over the years. After some thought, he unexpectedly said, “Many people lack a larger story, a metanarrative, in which to place the ups and downs of their lives. This leaves them isolated from other people, without a context or meaning for their suffering.” In other words, a lack of a story.
Perhaps the success of movies, such as the box office smashing Avengers, or Star Wars, is a longing to experience just such a larger, clearer storyline. The great psychiatrist, Victor Frankel believed that humans need meaning as much as food and shelter to survive. He wrote that finding deep meaning in our experiences is not just another name for spiritually but is also the very shape of human happiness. Without meaning we may have our material needs met, even perhaps wealth to live with, but ultimately, not much to live for. The experiences, sensations, emotions and events of our lives are fragmentary bits of information transformed from chaos into order by the story with which we weave them together- they are not objective and the storyline is not fixed: we have a role to play.
Great myths, legends and spiritual tales capture our imagination inspiring us to endure with courage, take risk, or persevere when times are difficult. It offers us deep wells of collective human experience changing the way we view our circumstances when we are stuck or wandering in a spiritual wilderness. A myth can be truer than fact in its ability to convey essential meaning. Tolkien believed that Myths have power to affect our lives saying: ‘Our myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily towards the true harbor’ while our veneration of fact, technological and materialistic focus ‘leads only to a yawning abyss.
The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives can change our perspective; helping us see our trials as either a hero’s journey or a dead end. Without a larger story to weave together small facts and events of our daily lives, we are swept along on the currents of circumstance, we react rather than direct. This ability to see our lives as part of a bigger journey is a form of art at the center of our being.
Art, when viewed in this context, is essential for conveying meaning and context for our lives. This means that rather than being a superfluous luxury element, it is built into the fabric of our being through the workings of our own mind. We have the opportunity to observe ourselves thinking, feeling, and choose a larger narrative. This means that story, or our ability to observe ourselves thinking and create a better narrative, is at the very center of a human psyche.
If you have time this week, send me a story, painting or poem that has made a difference to the way you see your life.
The visionary knows that truth is expressed only in fragments and is revealed only through the lens of metaphors and parables. —Abraham Joshua Heschel