Are the stories you tell about yourself “redemptive” or “contaminated”? The answer will determine whether you write your own happy ending, or drown in toxic sludge.
Way back in June, in that wonderful interval between Moderna shot #2 and the spread of the Delta variant, I was scanning the horizon for good news about the resumption of Life As I Knew It.
In the NYT, I found an article entitled “We Want to Party and Travel. Hold that Thought,” by Emily Esfahani Smith. Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, which isn’t a bad subject to explore when there are four million souls dead and the responsible virus still running semi-rampant.
The NYT article introduces us to Dan McAdams, a personality psychologist at Northwestern, who works to help people uncover their “narrative identity.”
“Dr. McAdams encourages people to divide their lives into chapters, recount major events, reflect on early memories and pull out the overarching themes in their narratives,” Smith writes. “After analyzing these stories, he found that some people tell ‘redemptive’ stories while others tell ‘contamination’ stories.’”
That is, they recount the upside of difficult events, or they surrender to the negativity. According to the research Smith and McAdams cite, redemption stories lead to health and happiness; contamination stories bring life crashing down around the tellers’ heads.
In the article, we learn that two people can have the same experience — say, a Contagion-like story where wicked virus jumps out of a wet market in Wuhan China and threatens everything and everybody around the world — but how they tell the story is everything. A contamination story (how appropriate) emphasizes how great the world was before the plot twist destroyed it. A redemption story looks at that same twist and recounts all the good that came from the initial disaster.
For me, the first signal of the disaster came when the NBA suspended the 2020–2021 season at the same time Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife had caught Covid. How could we as a society ever survive all that?
I found my own path to positivity, by spending my days with my nose buried in my journals and my remembrances, which filled my mind with all the things covid denied me: An unlimited world to explore, plus enthusiasm for all the crazy stuff that goes down in a young person’s life, plus the sheer possibility of it all.
I was so open and so clueless as a 22-year old, and so optimistic too. And the redemption of that 22-year old had lessons for the man I am today. 2020 was a new world, and new astonishments were available, even as everything shut down and the mountains burned.
As I dove deeper into my journals and the life I lived then, I came across Joseph Conrad’s short story “Youth, A Narrative,” which was a kind of dress rehearsal for his novel Heart of Darkness. “I have seen a little of the Eastern seas,” Conrad wrote, “but what I remember best is my first voyage there. You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence. You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something — and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little — not a thing in the world — not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination.”
Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its destination, make a little money doing it, and somehow lead a life worth living, as we motor down the river of our lives.
According to Smith and McAdams, it is the quality of the story we tell — accent on our own redemption, or our world’s contamination — that will determine which of those two destinations we ultimately visit.
Edmund Gosse, the English writer and poet, published a memoir called Father and Son, recounting how he found himself despite his father’s best efforts to turn him into a daddy clone. Faced with evidence his father’s lies and misdirections — his false narratives — Gosse turned inward. “I had found a companion and confidant in myself,” he wrote. “There was a secret in this world and it belonged to me and somebody who lived in the same body with me. There were two of us, and we could talk with one another. It is difficult to define impression so rudimentary, but it is certain that it was in this dual form that the sense of my individuality now suddenly descended upon me, and it is equally certain that it was a great solace to me to find a sympathizer in my own breast.”
Seize your narrative, seize your life.