Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 1]: Fish Stories

A friend of mine is a Christian, business leader, author, and fisherman. He tells fish stories in each of those roles. At least it feels that way to me, so I take his stories “with a grain of salt.” A Roman luminary named Pliny the Elder[1] used that phrase in a poison antidote in 77 A.D., and he meant it literally. Today, it describes how we respond when it feels like someone’s story – like the fish –  just keeps getting bigger.

I don’t care about my friend’s fish, I care about him. When he tells a fish story, he’s sharing his personal narrative. “This is who I am,” he’s saying, “And this is how I believe life works.”

“Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’”[2]

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.”[3]

The Self

This kind of narrative assumes the self is an entity all its own, with a purpose also all its own, and that if you get both in hand, you’ll know the meaning of life – at least your own. Current neuro-psychology doesn’t see things that way.

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.”[4]

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless.”[5]

For most people, that scientific outlook is too harsh:

“From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[6]

Self-Actualization

Cultivating a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning sounds good, but who’s got time? Maslow’s iconic “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid recognizes that adult life puts the basics first.

“Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest. Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.”[7]

Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman thinks we ought to get self-actualization off the back burner, for the sake of ourselves and our world.

“‘We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,’ Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.”[8]

Kaufman’s research suggests that making room for self-awareness and growth helps to develop character traits that the world could use more of:

“Participants’ total scores… correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of ‘stability’, indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals.

“Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors.

“A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

“The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. ‘I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],’ he told me. ‘A good way to start with that,’ he added, ‘is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.’”[9]

But What if There’s No Self to Actualize?

If there’s no unified self, then there’s no beneficiary for all that “concerted effort to change” and “conscientiousness and willpower.”

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.[10]

Again, it’s hard for most of us to live with that much existential angst[11]. We prefer instead to think there’s a unique self (soul) packed inside each of us, and to invest it with significance.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it. To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”[12]

Teleological thinking finds design and purpose in the material world[13] to counter the feeling that we’re at the mercy of random pointlessness. We prefer our reality to be by design, so that we have a chance to align ourselves with it – a form of personal empowerment psychologists call “agency.”

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”[14]

The Coming of Age Narrative

Further, we look to a specific cultural rite of passage – when we “come of age” in late adolescence — as the time when we first discover and take responsibility for our unique self and its identity and purpose. From there, we carry that sense of who we are and where we fit into responsible adult life.

“The protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society… Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.[15]

The Redemption Narrative

The coming of age story is a variant of the “redemption” narrative, in which we learn that suffering is purposeful: it shapes and transforms us, so we can take our place in society.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.” [16]

Redemption narratives make us good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”[17]

The American Way

Coming of age and redemption stories have been culturally and neurologically sustained in Western and Middle Eastern civilizations since the Abrahamic scriptures wrote about the Garden of Eden 5500 years ago. Americans, as heirs of this ideological legacy, have perfected it.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.[18]

“The coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is “everything.

“This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.”[19]

American capitalism relies on the redemption narrative as its signature story genre.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journaling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

“Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.” [20]

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already harnessed the power of the redemption story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”[21]

Writing Your Own Story

There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life. A bookseller friend’s slogan for his shop is “Life is a story. Tell a good one.”

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”[22]

As a result, some people think we ought to take Michel Foucault’s advice and meditate (practice “mindfulness”) and journal our way to a better self-understanding. As for journaling:

“In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

“Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial.”[23]

Consistent with Scott Barry Kaufman’s comments from earlier, the more you can put a coming of age or redemption story spin on your own narrative, the more likely journaling will improve your outlook.

“A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

“It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words).

“The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’”[24]

An American Life

My friend the storyteller is an exemplar of all the above. He’s an American, a Christian, and a capitalist. And when he starts his day by journaling, he believes he’s writing what he’s hearing from God. I was most of that, too for the couple decades he and I shared narratives and teleological outlook. I’ve since moved on:  at this writing, we’ve had no contact for over three years. I wondered if I could still call him a friend — whether that term still applies  after your stories diverge as entirely as ours . Yes you can and yes it does, I decided, although I honestly can’t say why.

Religion: Teleological Thinking Perfected

Personal narratives – especially actually writing your own story – aren’t for everyone. They require quiet, solitude, and reflection, plus doing that feels egotistical if you’re not used to it. Religion offers a more common teleological alternative, with its beliefs, rituals, and practices designed to put you in touch with an external, transcendent source of your identity, purpose, and meaning. “Don’t look inward, look up,” is its message.

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] . Wikipedia. Pliny the Elder was a naturalist, military leader, friend of the Emperor, and a victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

[2] I Am Not a Story: Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative? Aeon (Sept. 3, 2015)

[3] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] The Coming-Of-Age Con: How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication? Aeon (Sept. 8, 2017)

[5] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Do You Have A Self-Actualised Personality? Maslow Revisited. Aeon (Mar. 5, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[11] Urban Dictionary: existential angst..

[12] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Silicon Phoenix: A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

[15] The Coming-Of-Age Con, op cit.

[16] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[17] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[18] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[19] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[20] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[21] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[22] The Power of Story, op. cit.

[23] To Boost Your Self-Esteem, Write About Chapters of Your Life. Aeon (Apr. 5, 2019)

[24] Ibid.