In my first session with Dr. Erika, we talked a lot more about meaning than I expected. She detailed her four quadrants and how they relate to each other: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
She asked if I had any thoughts or reactions. The spiritual part inspired a feeling which I cannot describe. Sharp, teary, intense. I wanted to move away from it. So I told her about how it’s been difficult to make my own meaning after leaving the church.
I was always a true believer. In church three times per week. Proselytizing to my friends. I don’t do anything halfway. There were always brief periods of intense doubt. Times when my prayers seemed to hit the ceiling. But I always prayed anyway and rode them out. The surface started to crack when my sister came out of the closet to me. Then I was forced to really think about whether what I’d been taught really made sense.
Fast forward a bunch of years and dating one atheist scientist and I’m both deeply missing the meaning, certainty, and security of my former faith and afraid of getting sucked into anything vaguely spiritual again. So when Dr. Erika talks about how our meeting for the first time on the full moon and lunar eclipse, a time for hidden things in our psyches to become visible, I laugh to myself. But when she talks about needing the spirituality aspects of ourselves to come into alignment in order to feel good mentally, physically, and emotionally, I bristle.
I’ve wrestled a lot with my spirituality. I’ve worked hard to build my own meaning outside the church. It’s hard work that doesn’t seem to have paid off. I worked hard to shrug this monkey off my back but now I’m kind of cold and irritable without it.
What Dr. Erika did that was so insane was to weave a narrative out of what I said. From a young age I was concerned with what is true and right. My journey out of the church mirrors my fight for social justice. The common thread in my life seeking truth and fighting those who use their unearned power to mislead and mistreat the less powerful. Feeling lied to by church leaders informs and animates my anger at lying politicians.
I’m torn on this line of self-help. On the one hand, it’s inspiring as fuck.
Humans love a personal narrative.
“The default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode,” says Jonathan Adler, an assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering.
In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gotschall writes that the human mind “is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. A life story is not an objective account. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative … replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.” The brain resists the idea that life is random, most things are accidents, and nothing happens for a reason. “Stories allow us to impose order on the chaos,” writes Maura Kelly in the Atlantic.
Stories are also part of our desire to believe there’s some true, enduring “self” we must uncover over time. We use narrative to try to predict the future, to relate to others, and to moralize.
The only problem is that our narratives are bullshit.
To make our narratives we choose what’s relevant out of what is actually a totally random set of events that we usually remember incorrectly anyway. And the more times we tell our stories, the less accurate they become. Like a copy of a copy of a copy, we remember the story we told the last time every time we tell it again.
It can be stunting, and misleading, to too-fully believe our own made-up narratives.
Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
Although it flies in the face of what our stories have taught us for generations, a new understanding of coming of age, in which there is no direct path to maturity, no single ‘self’ that might be discovered or created, has the potential to be incredibly freeing. If one wishes, one can stand in the rain, watching a carousel, finally feeling grown-up. But, just as legitimately, one can simply experience it and enjoy it, and not feel the pressure to make anything of it all.
Besides marginalized people, depressives and autistic people also have trouble believing their own bullshit. “Sometimes in cases of extreme autism, people don’t construct a narrative structure for their lives,” Adler said.
“Depressives tend to have more realistic—and less inflated—perceptions of their importance, abilities, and power in the world than others,” Kelly writes. “So those of us who benefit from therapy may like it in large part because it helps us to do what others can do more naturally: to see ourselves as heroes; to write (and re-write) the stories of our lives in ways that cast us in the best possible light; to believe that we have grown from helpless orphans or outcasts to warriors in control of our fate.”
“We like stories because, as Gotschall puts it, we are ‘addicted to meaning’—and meaning is not always the same as the truth,” Kelly writes.
But if your meaning is found in seeking truth… well. I suppose we’ll see.
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