Narrative Identity - We Are Our Stories
Although defining our identity by our roles, psychology, or experiences (as discussed in the previous post) does have some value, the problem is that they usually do a very poor job at bringing all the pieces of our life together.
Psychological identities tend to be static, resistant to change, and disconnected from the timeline of our lives.
Role identities also struggle with change, and it can be hard to live in the gaps in which we are no longer playing the roles we consider most important. On the other hand, it can be equally challenging to juggle all of the different roles when we aren’t quite sure which one(s) to prioritize.
In contrast, experience-identities usually love change and are very connected to our own timelines; the problem is that we can struggle to find a way to tie all our different experiences together in a meaningful way. Without a story, experiences can become trophies on a dusty shelf of memories which we occasionally pull out and polish to entertain others or even ourselves.
This is where one of the most powerful things that I’ve read about in academics or spiritual formation comes in. It’s called narrative identity theory. I don’t want to write academically here, although I have a whole paper on this topic called “Discipleship Education for Millennials” if you ever want to check me out on Academia. But let’s take a minute to explore narrative identity, and then I’m going to share how it has helped me personally with my own story.
What is narrative identity?
Narrative identity theory says that we form our identity by integrating our life experiences into an ever-evolving story that gives us unity and purpose in life. This story, like all stories, has a past, a present, and a future - so it has a plot. We have characters and scenes and settings that make up our lives, but most importantly, like any good story, we have a “teleology” - or an understanding of a goal or purpose.
From this perspective, we “construct meaning by interpreting the past through the eyes of the present with an eye toward the future.” (Nathan C. Byrd) This meaning-making is the most important part of narrative identity theory. If we are unable to make meaning of our lives, then we can find ourselves depressed, mentally ill, or even suicidal. (Please note I am not saying that all mental illness is caused by this.)
We are our stories. We have an important part to play in this, though. It’s not just that our stories make meaning out of themselves; we have to interpret them. The problem is that we live in an extremely individualistic culture, so we have been given far too much freedom in our meaning-making.
Without a bigger story to guide our own stories, we end up once again feeling detached, isolated, lonely, and purposeless. After all, what good is a story that ends once I die? (Click to share on Twitter)
Millennials especially have been raised as hyper-individualists. We have been told, directly or indirectly, that our lives are a “blank slate” upon which we get to create our own identity. Our ties to community, family, and even our culture have been played down in an attempt to keep us from getting stifled and smothered, to “free us” to be our true and authentic selves. But with all this freedom, so much of my generation finds ourselves in a full-blown identity crisis.
It’s true that everyone needs a little dose of individualism. We can’t just let our families and communities totally determine who we are. We do need to be ourselves, but if we view our lives as a totally blank slate or an empty book that we alone get to author, we have gone too far.
Without a bigger story to guide our own stories, we end up once again feeling detached, isolated, lonely, and purposeless. After all, what good is a story that ends once I die? This is particularly dangerous for single people like me, because without a spouse or children, we can easily feel that we are leaving no legacy behind.
How does this work? Finding my own identity
Maybe the best way to display this is to give a little insight into the way I understand my own identity right now.
It could be so easy to find my identity totally thrown into question. The roles that I play have completely changed, and in most ways are totally different from anything I’ve done before. My experiences are also totally new. It’s tempting to build my identity from new experiences, but it can be jarring since all of them are new and seem disconnected from my life back in the States. If I rely too much on role and experience for my identity, then I could fall into the trap of thinking I’m basically a completely new and different person now.
Without a story, experiences can become trophies on a dusty shelf of memories which we occasionally pull out and polish to entertain others or even ourselves. (Click to share on Twitter)
My personality also seems to be changing. Before, I was an extreme extrovert. Too much time alone would make me miserable. I needed to be with friends or at church events as much as possible, because they gave me energy and life. But now I am finding myself evolving into more of an introvert. I not only need but am actually enjoying time alone, at home or exploring the city, for the first time in my life. Maybe this is temporary, as a result of the massive changes, or maybe it’s permanent. Either way, it is a huge departure from the way I was before, and once again, if I define myself by my personality type, I would be tempted to think I’m a completely different person now.
Without story, I could find myself in crisis. But in reality there are three stories, and one meta-story, that have kept me grounded and mentally stable.
First: my own personal story. Although things are so different now, through years of journaling and reflection, I can look back and see how everything ties together. Past experiences and roles have prepared me for where I am now, and without many of them I would never have even made it here today. So it’s not just that they “prepared” me, but they’re tied together as part of my own life story - as chapters in a novel, not separate articles.
But second, that novel itself is really just one character’s perspective in a much bigger story. Like books that have chapters from different characters’ points of view, my story wouldn’t be possible without a larger community. It’s not just that I was “part of” my church, or school, or family, or whatever - they were part of me. In other words, my own experiences are deeply tied to those of so many others far beyond myself. I can’t just be an island.
Third, I’ve now been introduced to a different story, and this realization has been especially helpful for me: the story of Dar el Awlad, the campus that I work on. I came in with some expectations that were very different from reality. I came in thinking I knew what life would be like, and what my role would be. I didn’t have a Messiah complex or think I had all the answers, but there were some things I thought I knew could be done better, and I knew how to implement them. And sometimes, I can unconsciously trick myself into thinking that I’m the only one who is working with a troubled child to help them develop and grow.
But things didn’t start when I got here. In fact, they started 80 years ago. A few of our staff members have been here almost four decades. I’m stepping into something so much bigger than myself. Some of our boys have been here eight years. And yes, I get to be a character in the story, but it’s not my story. In a sense, it’s like another novel in the same world as the last one, and I’m a crossover character - like books from the Star Wars extended universe or something similar.
I can’t tell you how helpful this has been. When things get out of hand, or I can’t understand why things are happening this way, or a certain boy is completely baffling me, or - most importantly - when I feel ineffective, I’m able to get perspective by talking with the other staff. It could be taken as demeaning to say I’m a “blip on the radar,” as one former staff member put it to me, but if I think about it from the right perspective, it really helps me make sense of things.
And for the ultimate meaning-making, it is helpful to remember that all of this is part of the meta-story of the universe. The story of God didn’t stop at the end of the Bible, but I am privileged to live in that story as well, to observe and taking part in God’s restoration of humanity and all creation. I briefly overview this in my post On Faith, Hope, and Love. And if that doesn’t put things in perspective, I’m not sure what else could.