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Chapter 4: self: Virtues of Character

How to Tell the Story of Our Life

At moments of sorrow and exhaustion, it is only too easy to look back over the years and feel that our lives have, in essence, been meaningless. We take stock of just how much has gone wrong: how many errors there have been; how many unfulfilled plans and frustrated dreams we’ve had. We may feel like the distraught, damned Macbeth who, on learning of his wife’s death, exclaims at a pitch of agony that man is a cursed creature who:

…struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. [Life] is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5

No life can avoid an intermittently high degree of ‘sound and fury.’ The question is whether it must also, ultimately, signify nothing. As Macbeth’s lines hint, this will depend on who is telling it. In the hands of Shakespeare’s (bracingly termed) ‘idiot’, the story of a life may well turn into unintelligible and dispiriting gibberish. But with sufficient compassion and insight, we may equally be able to make something different and a great deal more meaningful and redemptive out of the same material.


Only a small number of people ever self-consciously write their autobiographies. It is a task we associate with celebrities and the very old – but it is, in the background, a universal activity. We may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them in our minds nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going and why events happened as they did.


Many of us are strikingly harsh narrators of these life stories. We declare our achievements puny, we berate ourselves for our faults, we perceive only the negative sides of our characters. We constantly give the advantage to the other side. We may feel we’re being objective, but it seems we’re really rehearsing the case for an especially vicious imaginary prosecution.


Yet there is nothing necessary about our methods or our verdicts. There could be ways of telling very different, far kinder, and more balanced stories from the very same sets of facts. Good – by which is meant fair-minded and judicious – narrators know how to display a range of narrative skills that keep unfair, partisan and confidence-destroying lines of attack at bay.


For a start, these good narrators accept that lives can be meaningful even when they involve a lot of failure and humiliation. Mistakes are not dead-ends, they are sources of information that can be exploited and put to work as guides to more effective subsequent action. The sound and fury can be made to yield hugely significant insights.


The good storyteller appreciates that a life can remain meaningful even when it contains long passages that might appear, at first glance, to be merely a waste of time. We may spend a decade not quite knowing what we want to do with ourselves professionally, trying out a number of different jobs and never settling in any of them, testing our parents and enduring the scepticism of our friends. We may go through a succession of failed relationships that leave us confused and hurt. But these experiences don’t have to be dismissed as merely meaningless. The wandering and the exploration may be intimately connected to our eventual development and growth. We needed the career crisis to understand our working identities; we had to fail at love to fathom our hearts. We cannot get anywhere important in one go. We must forgive ourselves the horrors of our first drafts.

The good storyteller recognises too – contrary to certain impressions – that there will always be a number of players responsible for negative events in a person’s life. We are never the sole authors of either our triumphs or of our defeats. It is therefore as unwarranted (and as egocentric) to take all the blame as to assume all the credit. Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or somebody else: the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or sheer bad luck. We should not take the entire burden of our difficulties upon our own shoulders.

Good narrators are compassionate. At many points, we simply could not have known. We were not exceptionally stupid, we were – like all humans – operating with limited information, trying to interpret the world with flawed and blinkered minds under the constant sway of emotion, damaged by our pasts and only selectively capable of reason and calm.

Finally, good narrators appreciate that events can count as meaningful even when they aren’t recognised as such by powerful authorities in the world at large. We may be holidaying in a tent rather than the Presidential suite, hanging out with our grandmother rather than a pop group, teaching children to read rather than buying and selling companies – and nevertheless lay claim to a legitimately meaningful life. We should not let false notions of prestige interfere with our attempts to focus on the bits of our life stories that actually satisfy us. We should allow ourselves to be the most important audiences to, and assessors of, our performances.

At our death beds, we will inevitably know that much in our life stories didn’t work out, that there were dreams that didn’t come to pass and loves that were rejected, friendships that could never be repaired, and catastrophes and hurts we never overcame. But as good story tellers, we will also know that there were threads of intense value that sustained us, that there was a higher logic we sometimes followed, that despite the agonies, our lives were not mere sound and fury; that in our own way, at select moments at least, our stories made sense.




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