Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.

Where the Narrative Stops

Back in February, I talked about the scripts and narratives that guide our life, with a specific focus on the cognitive dissonance that happens when we try and “disobey” them. Today instead I’m going to talk about the way in which I believe those narratives are getting weaker and less meaningful. It’s also probably going to borrow a bunch from my series on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (1, 2, 3, 4), because shared scripts and narratives are clearly a core component of Haidt’s “moral capital”.

In fact the more I draft this post, the more I realize I should throw in one more previous essay reference: Nostalgia For Ye Olde Days also talks around this issue a little bit. In hindsight though I think that post committed exactly the sin I want to talk about today, of focusing too much on things in common (look at the examples I used, of yoga, and veganism, and video games) instead of narratives in common.

My thesis is this: people today (and particularly younger people) have increasingly uncertain and unclear visions of where and what and how they want their life to be, due largely to the erosion of binding social narratives and the equivalent moral capital. This is leading to an increase in chronic existential unhappiness, and various other issues.

In middle-class post-war America, there was a single, nearly universal narrative that existed in the cultural zeitgeist: you grew up, got a career (as distinct from just a job, and only if you were male), got married, had kids, raised your kids. Rinse, repeat. People who grew up with this narrative could rest assured that if they followed it, they were “living a good life”, or something along those lines. Every life is different, and some people who followed this path were genuinely terrible, but at some sort of existential level the promise was that you would be alright. It was just How Things Are.

Of course this narrative is very restrictive if it’s not quite what you want for yourself. The “free love” and hippie rebellion of the following generation were largely reactions against this narrative, even though in practice most of the rebels eventually settled down and lived just that life. And it’s also true that this narrative still exists in pockets today; the Mormons, for example, seem to have it pretty down pat at this point. It’s just not nearly as pervasive.

But if that narrative is increasingly dying out in the general population, what narrative is replacing it? It’s easy to point to specific examples (social activism comes to mind) but for a lot of people I would argue there isn’t anything replacing it. We grow up, finish high school, (potentially) finish university, and then… the narrative stops. We want to give people the freedom to pursue their life’s passion, to not get stuck in the “rat race”, to love who they love, and build the world they want to see. But in giving too much freedom we also give an overwhelming selection of choices. If you know the “next step” in your life is to get a career, then suddenly you have something to work toward. It doesn’t matter if your career has some ultimate fulfilling purpose; it’s just What You Do.

Today, it’s really easy to spend a lot of your twenties (and soon, your thirties) just kinda wandering around. Working, usually, because you need money to pay the bills, but working jobs, not careers. Looking, waiting, for something that you can do that will give you that purpose, that sense of fulfillment. And even if you see it, even if you know deep down “that thing over there is what I want to do with my life”, it’s too easy to dismiss it as too hard, unachievable, and end up settling for nothing at all. Purpose is what we make of it, and I’ll settle for somebody else’s narrative any day over no purpose at all.

It would be nice if there was some way to create a good “default” cultural narrative for people to fall back on without restricting their personal freedom at all. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way; a key part of Haidt’s definition of moral capital is that it does constrain individualism in favour of cooperation. I’m going to think more on this.

Narrative Dissonance

In my previous post, I mentioned something I was trying to get better at:

I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.

I want to expand on some of the stuff in there.

Scripts

A huge portion of our regular social interactions run on scripts without meaningful deviation. In North America, “How’s it going?” as a greeting is universally answered with “Fine”, “Good”, or maybe “Not too bad”. When you run into an acquaintance on the street, there are rules for that conversation depending on exactly what kind of acquaintance they are. Even within closer, more intimate relationships we often build up our own little set of custom scripts: habits, in-jokes, little snippets of call-and-response.

While a lot of these scripts are developed through practical experience and explicit teaching, they are also woven through our culture. Recall your parents teaching you to say “Please” and “Thank you”, and then realize that you also had that behaviour modelled for you in books and television, by neighbours, by teachers, and by random strangers in the grocery store. This is how children are socialized.

While “Please” and “Thank you” form a simple, consistent script that is relatively easy to apply, many scripts are much more complicated. Perhaps they’re simply more complex, and are used less often. Perhaps there is disagreement on how the script should go, depending on which segment of society you ask.  Perhaps we are even socialized into the script before we are given the opportunity to practice it.

Narratives

Everything that applies to scripts also applies to narratives: the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world. Whether you believe conscious will is simply post-hoc justification or not, everyone narrates their life in some sense. “Everyone is the hero of their own story”.

As children we are presented with various narratives we can adopt for our lives. Broadly painted examples of these could be an academic narrative, an athletic narrative, a religious narrative. Every person tells their story differently, piecing together parts of the socially “standard” narratives and shaping these around their actual experiences in order to create a unique whole.

We may make the choice of our narrative, but our narrative then dictates the rest of our choices to us. While many people probably believe that they’ve thought long and hard about all of their major life choices, the truth is somewhat more mundane. As Sartre pointed out, humans have a rather radical form of freedom (assuming you believe in free will at all). Consider making a wild and unexpected major life change: quitting your job/education in favour of a radically different field, going to live on the other side of the world, or whatever it may be for you. The reason you aren’t making that change today is probably something about consequences and risk and how the life you have isn’t so bad. But you could do it. Whether you do it or not, you probably hadn’t even considered the option until you read this paragraph. In practice nobody actually evaluates all their options on a regular basis; there’s just too many of them. Instead, we only evaluate the things that fit in our narrative. In this way our chosen narrative guides our life much more concretely than we might believe.

Dissonance

All that said, sometimes life calls for extreme measures. Maybe you’re one of the few people who reached a breaking point today with their life and are actually considering making a major change to their narrative. Of course it seems scary.

It’s also hard. Forcing yourself to do things counter to your current narrative produces all kinds of crazy cognitive dissonance. You’re actively threatening your own identity, and the fact that clearly part of you wants to make that change ends up setting you at war with yourself. Unless you’ve fully bought into a new narrative at an emotional level, this can be extremely destabilizing both mentally and emotionally. (Tangentially, this is the fundamental flaw in stoicism for me – our minds have very limited control over our emotional buy-in to our own narrative).

This isn’t to say it’s impossible. People definitely do sometimes have epiphany moments where their whole outlook on life shifts at a fundamental emotional level. But it’s not nearly as simple as declaring it will be so. If you’re clever, and patient, you can make big changes slowly. A river can change its course dramatically and gradually, one pebble at a time. But if you get impatient and try to throw a big boulder in your river? You’ll just end up wet.