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]


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.

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,