The stories of our lives

(Photo: DY)

(Photo: DY)

For me, the best part of embracing (or at least not resisting!) middle age is the feeling that I’ve finally sorted out my core priorities and values. I’m not suggesting that change is undesirable or impossible at this stage. Rather, I believe that real, positive change is best built on a grounded base of earlier experiences and lessons we’ve learned from them.

On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), a collection of writings by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive. Campbell wrote:

In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.

I don’t know if I’m fully at that point yet, but I do understand the passage in ways I would not have a decade ago.

Story plots

In this context, it’s helpful to think about the stories of our lives. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (2004), Christopher Booker posits that seven basic plot lines continually recur in literature and drama:

  • “Overcoming the Monster”
  • “Rags to Riches”
  • “The Quest”
  • “Voyage and Return”
  • “Comedy”
  • “Tragedy”
  • “Rebirth”

Let’s apply these seven types to our own story arcs, and attempt to change the narratives if they aren’t going our way. Only one of the seven — tragedy — is negative on its face. And with the exception of comedy, the rest encompass seizing opportunities, meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles, and recovering from setbacks.

Beyond ourselves

Our stories also may include reaching out beyond our own lives and striving to better the world around us.

My friend Kayhan Irani, an award winning cultural activist based in New York (she’s way too young to be a Gen Joneser, but who’s counting!?), co-edited with Rickie Sollinger and Madeline Fox a volume of essays, Telling Stories to Change the World (2008). The book gathers narratives and reflections on social justice from around the world.

Whether it’s the immigrant experience in New York’s Hudson Valley, teaching about genocide in Darfur, women living in Muslim cultures, or a host of other settings, Telling Stories to Change the World draws us out of ourselves and, in the process, invites us to think about how we can make a difference in our own lives. Especially for those of us whose life experiences have been more conventional (in the American middle class sense of the term), this is a book of differences and possibilities.

When I started this blog a few weeks ago, I asked How will Generation Jones make its mark? During the years to come, I believe that part of that answer will include contributing toward positive change in our communities. We have a lot of good chapters left to write, I’d say.

One response

  1. Thank you, David, for the topic. Joseph Campbell has been one of my heroes especially during a time in my life when I was more actively seeking to understand the breadth and depth of the human experience and the ways in which we can interpret our experiences and derive a sense of purpose and meaning that enables us to move forward in a more mindful way.

    Getting out of one’s self, so to speak, and investing in activities that enable us to feel more connected to the larger whole of life is certainly wise. For some it helps to take very small steps, in the beginning, especially when someone has experienced a tragedy or is recovering from a traumatic experience.

    I find that the idea of changing the narrative in our lives and how we interpret our experiences to be a rather provocative one. I do think in terms of there being a process that almost seems instinctual or, perhaps, intuitive when it comes to a ‘rising from the ashes’ type of experience, which may apply to the experience of a rebirth.

    As for me, I am not technically a Gen Joneser, as my birth year is two years older than the cut-off. However, I do see life as a continuum and many who lived during a time when there was an overlapping of historical events between the generations, there can be an appreciation of how more than one generational group can be impacted upon by the cultural and societal influences of the day. Feeling connected to the current generational themes, as well as the incoming one may not be so uncommon.

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