Lives of redemption

Dan McAdams wants to help people learn how to frame their lives as narratives, and in many American lives a key theme is redemption. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, published “The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By” in October.

I haven’t read it, merely an article on it in the Northwestern alumni magazine, but the article, by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell, did prompt some remembrances of times past. And for people who are searching for a way to make sense of their lives, which sometimes seems to be practically everybody except me, it might be worth a look.

When McAdams interviews people for his research, he told Blackwell, “By the end, people are sometimes surprised _ they find that the process of putting their life into narrative form is a positive experience. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve heard maybe one boring life story.”

In rough outline, to discover your own narrative, divide your life into chapters; identify critical events, talk about your greatest challenge and how you faced it, describe the heroes and villains in your book, that is, the people who had the great positive and negative effects on you, think about what could be positive and negative futures for you, and, finally, identify the major theme of your life narrative.

I’m not sure I’m interested in actually doing this, because at least for me chance plays too great a role in life for the results to be useful, going all the way back to which sperm fertilized your mother’s egg. It’s up to you what you make of the chances life deals you, but if the result seems to have a theme or a pattern it’s probably because we humans are prone to see patterns even where they don’t exist.

Daniel Gilbert, in an essay titled “The Vagaries of Religious Experience” posted at edge.org, says, “things can be viewed in many ways, but human brains like the most rewarding view and thus they search for and hold on to that view whenever they can.” He is writing primarily about religious belief, but the observation is broader.

For instance, he says, “a significant portion of those who survive major traumas not only do well, but claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience.”

But most people don’t know their brains are organized to look on the bright side. So, Gilbert says, “we are surprised when experiences we once feared and avoided turn out to be much less awful than we had anticipated, and we are deeply surprised when they turn out to be blessings in disguise.”

Who knew, Gilbert asks, “that widowhood or divorce would be an opportunity to meet the partner of our dreams? Who knew that a heart attack or a prison sentence would lead us to refocus our lives and concentrate on the things that matter?”

McAdams’ work with people who see a redemptive theme in their lives bears out Gilbert’s observations. McAdams studies what he calls “generativity,” the extent to which people are committed to making the world a better place for the next generation. He notes a number of behaviors that are associated with generativity, some of them seemingly trifling yet collectively indicating what kind of person someone is, as well as how the person feels about him- or herself.

The sidebar to the article asks whether you’ve done a number of the following within the past two months: taught someone a new skill or learned one yourself, baby-sat someone else’s children or repaired a child’s toy, tended a plant or sewed or mended, donated blood, cooked for friends, made a decision that influenced many people, gave a stranger directions, volunteered or donated money.

That’s not the whole list, but note there is an element of chance even in those things. I used to be a blood donor, but now I’m not because I’ve had cancer. Nobody’s asked me to baby-sit, but then I don’t have many friends with young children. I do water the bougainvillea tree, but I’m afraid I’ve put off doing the mending so it’s more than two months since I sewed anything.

On the other hand, I certainly hope my decisions have influenced many people, because that’s my job.

As McAdams told Blackwell, people who are highly generative are not necessarily saints. Dedicating yourself to making the world a better place means, among other things, that you believe your opinion about what is better for the world should be more highly regarded than differing opinions.

Some opinions are better than others, but the people who hold them are not necessarily in the best position to know which ones.

“The more redemptive the life story, McAdams has found, the better a person’s psychological well-being,” Blackwell writes. Maybe that’s true only because brains are wired to think that way, as Gilbert says, but if people are happier as a result, it’s a good thing either way.

(Contact Linda Seebach at Rocky Mountain News, http://rockymountainnews.com.)

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