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The importance of stories

Read humanist philosopher Richard Norman on how stories can help us to make sense of our lives.

We now return to the question of what makes a meaningful life. Below is an article from humanist philosopher Richard Norman on how stories can give meaning to our life from within.

When we think about how meaningful we find our own lives to be, one of the things we may be doing is asking whether the different bits of our lives hang together, and what they all add up to. One way in which we might put that question is to ask ourselves whether we can tell a coherent story about our lives. This idea of having a ‘life-story’ helps to explain why the language of ‘meaning’ is appropriate. We don’t merely want to have a good life in the sense of a collection of rewarding experiences and achievements. We want to be able to see the various components as woven into an ongoing narrative into which they fit and which makes that life my life.

This is not to say that our lives have to be consistent and uniform. Someone’s life might be hugely varied and continually changing direction. So, for instance, someone might leave school at 16, drift for a few years, then go off travelling, come back and study as a mature student, get a job in a bank, find it boring and become a social worker, and then in mid-life decide to change direction and retrain as an airline pilot. That would itself be the story of a life. We might say of her ‘She’s always up for new challenges’. Equally, someone might spend his whole life training and then working as a nurse, and the story of his life would be a story of commitment and dedication.

Does this mean, then, that every life automatically has a story to be told about it, and that, by definition, therefore, every life is meaningful? Not necessarily. Someone might stand back from their life, look at it and think ‘My life is just a mechanical routine, it’s going nowhere, I’ve lost direction.’ They might actually use the language of narrative and say something like ‘I’ve lost the plot.’ Asking oneself what story one can tell about one’s life is a question that can have real bite.

In thinking about our own lives in this way, we draw on our shared repertoire of stories, and of course that includes all the fictional stories which are part of our culture. We grow up listening to stories – fairy stories, children’s stories of all kinds. We read novels – think of the number of people you see sitting on a train reading a novel. It’s not just great literature and ‘high culture’, and it’s not just novels and the written word. We devour stories as films, plays, TV movies, and soaps. Human beings are story-telling animals, and have been ever since early human societies sat around the fire telling stories. It’s no accident that this is so fundamental a part of human culture. We need to find stories in our lives, find patterns in our experience, and the fictional stories which we hear and see and tell provide us with examples, templates for trying to make sense of our own lives.

Not all these fictional stories which we draw on are good templates, and they are not always helpful for thinking about our own lives. Sometimes they are simply escapist fantasy. More damagingly, they may be sentimental or simplistic. The classic romantic narrative of finding the ideal person, falling in love, and living happily ever after is likely to be a disastrous model for thinking about one’s own life, creating unrealistic expectations and obscuring the need to work at relationships and expect ups and downs. Traditional stories of heroism and great deeds may lead someone to build their life around an unrealistic ideal instead of settling to a life of unglamorous hard work.

Joseph Conrad’s great novel Lord Jim is a story about the pernicious role of trashy novels. Jim goes to sea ‘liv[ing] in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through surf with a line… – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.’ Conrad’s novel is the story of a man who has to spend the greater part of his life coming to terms with his failure of heroism. We do not just need stories, then. We need good stories. We need novels and films and dramas which sensitise us to the complexities of experience, attune us to the realities and ambiguities of human life and thereby help us to make sense of our own lives.

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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