Is Life A Narrative And Does It Matter?

Last night I read a new article on a great blog I follow called The Bully Pulpit. The blog is mainly philosophical in bent with large doses of political thought and heaps of great quotes from thinkers throughout the ages. If you enjoy the Author Quotes section here you would probably like The Bully Pulpit.

I really find just about everything ol’ J.R. says over there to be fascinating and last night’s post didn’t disappoint. The post is titled “Is A Human Life A Narrative?” and it basically quotes a couple of authors on their thoroughly-devised philosophies of how life is distinctly not a narrative. They point out that life is simply a collection of random events to which human beings naturally assign a plot. J.R. seemed to readily agree with their logic.

The post has stirred up a lot of contemplation in me and I can tell it gets to others as well in an almost surprising way. Even though most people don’t frequently consider their own narrative or effective story-processing skills, it can prove quite unnerving to contemplate one’s own world as invalid or, worse, an illusion. As this simple blog can attest, I have made myself a student of story and creative inspiration. I have devoted a great deal to these concepts and even read some good books on the science behind the natural human behavior of narrative-based risk-weighing and decision-making (I highly suggest Wired For Story if you are a writer. While it is not a science text, it is a very light read on narrative design that builds upon scientific research into how we process information.) I would not say, however, that I have given an adequate amount of significant thought to the question of whether life is actually in fact a story. It seems that most of us interested in recognizing this axiom are already determined to validate and love on it.

I think it is easy for anyone to agree that, yes, the tuna sandwich I ate for lunch last Tuesday plays little to no role in my preconceived life narrative. While every little experience may be a grain of sand upon a scale which changes our attitudes over time, we would not include 90% of the actual content of our lives in a memoir. The things we do recognize as valuable are usually pivotal because they are sensationalized in our memories and because they are a cumulative representation, a turning point of events we would recognize as changing chapters or entire narratives from before and after said key memory. Regardless of these facts, the much larger and less theoretical question immediately becomes “should human beings continue to process information as narrative and do we even have a choice?”

I personally would argue that we have no choice in the narrative framework and that this is really a very good thing. Narrative is important. It gives life meaning. While “meaning” is a highly subjective concept, I still find it very hard to even conceptualize any sense of purpose outside of a larger set of implications termed as a narrative. It is also the starting point for processing concepts like relationship, responsibility, time, and cause-and-effect. Narrative as a cognitive tool is not invalidated by that fact that every detail of a life may not be an aspect of a consecutive narrative or by the fact that we cannot adequately process it. Many people use their narratives to successfully navigate life decision making, while many are deluded to make horrify decisions. It is not the narrative process that is at fault, it is the narratives themselves which are prone to great flaws.

This question on our minds also leads into a spider’s web of intricately related and equally daunting questions of fate, time and space, creative inspiration, and relationships.

If narrative-based cognitive processing is invalid, what are we to make of the repeated interactions between beings and/or objects?
Can we measure relationships in the scientific process without believing that we have a starting relationship, an added variable relationship, and an alter resulting relationship?
Can two human beings develop beyond strangers without a joint narrative?
Can we build an idea upon one formerly supposed without calling it a narrative?
How can you read and follow the (supposed) logic I’ve put forth in this article if not by some form of following a narrative?

So many good questions included here, I would love to hear your thoughts, further questions, and rebuttals!


  1. Hey Micah,

    I read both your article and the article which spawned yours, and I think you nailed the difference in your post.

    “It seems that most of us interested in recognizing this axiom are already determined to validate and love on it.”

    I will admit that I do not first describe life as a narrative. It is just not a part of the idiomatic language I usually employ. I like it, but I am willing to bet you have invested far more time, thought, and feeling into that metaphor than I have, making me confident my thoughts on this topic will be either shallow or misplaced altogether! If so, forgive me, but your article piqued my interest.

    I think the main difference between those who do and do not see their life as a narrative comes down to whether there was an author involved. Those like Jullian Barnes see no author directing the flow of their lives, therefore, life is at best an impromptu, free-verse poem. For someone who sees the hand of God guiding, directing, and holding him or her through life, the metaphor of a narrative strikes a strong chord with reality. It resonates with the hum of truth.

    I do think the author of the article you read had something important to say about the danger of stretching the metaphor to fit shapes it was never meant to. When the metaphor begins to be something instead of point to something, you have, as JR put it, created a pseudo-philosophy. Saying God’s love is as expansive as the ocean should drive you to awe and devotion to God’s love. When that metaphor drives you to awe and devotion to the ocean, you have missed the point. From my, admittedly, passing association with the “life as narrative” metaphor I must say I think people throw it out as a brute fact of life when it is really a metaphor used to explain a properly basic belief: does God exist?

    So, that being said, I think your questions at the end of your post would all be answered yes and no. Yes, a narrative is necessary for friendship, science, and even reading. But no, in that others may use a different metaphor to express the same idea of ordered and directed existence.

    Fun post!


    1. Good thoughts! Did you see our comments on his post? We hashed out a bit more there as well.

      I think that I was interpreting things more in terms of the cognitive processing of human minds v. the usefulness of the axiom in daily life, etc.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation!


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