The Narrative Must Advance

There’s a concept that comes up at TheLastPsychiatrist.com: “writing your story toward an ending.” I like this concept, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

The Last Psychiatrist, of course, frames his blog posts in the language of narcissism. He advises people to write their stories toward an ending because a narcissist tends to feel that he or she is the “central character” in a story about himself/herself. When I think about this concept, on the other hand, I tend to think of it in slightly different language: the language of narrative. We all craft narratives about the important things in life. For example, I met my wife at a friend’s house party on Canada Day. When I think back about that party, I think of not as a Canada Day party with my friend, but as “the time I met the woman who would become my wife.” That’s a narrative.

Another example of a narrative is the way we explain our life’s circumstances. Suppose your roommate left some dirty dishes in the sink last night and you had to clean them up in the morning. There are a couple of narratives that might play out in your head. One is, “Argh, my roommate never does the dishes and I always have to clean them up!” Another might be, “My roommate must have had something come up last night; I’ll help out by doing the dishes.” What’s important in this example is that the narrative you choose in a particular situation can have a big impact on how you feel about that situation.

That’s why I always encourage people to craft positive narratives for their lives. Maybe it’s unfair that your roommate didn’t do the dishes last night, but you’ll certainly leave the house happier if you believe you were helping your busy roommate than you would if you believed your no-good roommate never helps out. If you want your roommate to get better at doing the dishes, you’ll have to talk to him. That conversation will go a lot better if you go into it asking how you might help your busy roommate so that the dishes can get done, compared to an antagonistic intervention in which you accused your roommate of being lazy.

Narratives matter, because they influence our reactions and the ensuing series of events.

But life also moves on, and sometimes our narratives – even the good ones – don’t keep up with the changes we’ve been through. Suppose your roommate got a lot better at doing the dishes after your chat. If you don’t take the time to notice that your roommate seldom leaves dirty dishes in the sink, then the next time he does it – even if it’s the first time in months – you might react negatively: “Again!? We talked about this!” But in that example, your roommate will have done nothing wrong. It’s your narrative that’s the problem, not your roommate’s one-off dirty dish.

The key point here is that the narrative must advance. If this sounds familiar to you, it might because I’ve written extensively about a special case of advancing the narrative: The Myth of the Perpetual Beginner. One challenge a lot of novice runners have is that they never figure out how not to be novices anymore. The years go by, but their relationship to the sport stays constant. They never improve their form (to prevent injuries), they never vary their training (to prevent fatigue and stagnation), and they never get beyond the same old routes and group runs. To get to the next phase, where they might enjoy fewer injuries and have a more fun time running, they must learn to advance their narrative, and become “experienced runners,” or at least intermediates.

This concept, of course, goes well beyond the relative trivialities of roommates and running. The Gottman Institute has identified the narrative surrounding a couple’s relationship as one of the most important aspects of a marriage. It can go both ways. If your narrative is all about how your spouse leaves dirty socks everywhere and doesn’t appreciate you, your marriage will deteriorate. If your narrative is all about how you two have a legendary romance that thoroughly enriches you, the two of you will make more of a point to come together (“turn toward each other,” in Gottman’s language) during harder times. But, of course, if you happen to have accidentally created a negative narrative and you want to turn it around, the narrative must advance. You must work on creating a love story between the two of you, and allowing that narrative to become the next chapter of your lives.

It’s easy for relatively stable and established adults to have narratives that get “stuck.” You wake up, you go to work, you come home to family responsibilities, you go to bed. Repeat. Then on weekends, you fill your time up with hobbies, yes, but hobbies don’t always have narratives, unless we infuse them with on. If you like to write, you should work on a writing project, and finish it, and move to the next one. If you like to run, you should train for something, and then do it, and then train for something new.

In all aspects, our narratives must advance, or else we will never really experience the forward progress of a life well-lived. Or so I’ve been thinking lately.