The physical decline that marks the aging process is generally taken, if never fully accepted, as part of the game. Now into my seventy-second year, I grouse about and lament the inevitable losses to the dictates of time. What’s come as a total surprise is a growing awareness that the narrative constructs that provided the foundation for what I can only call my “self” have begun crumbling.
The narratives we create to explain our selves to ourselves are dynamic structures, organic in their lifelike mutability. We process what we think know of ourselves, of our lives and our relations with the world, all of it an evolving storyline that we conjure up in real time. We become the story of ourselves. The title of the Elvis Costello song, “Every Day I write the Book,” may be the closest take on how we internalize and explain our own story to ourselves.
Part of what we do in constructing, integrating and revising these interior novels or movies, the leading role is always reserved for you know who, is to create an acceptable self, one we can live with. We rationalize, we explain our experiences, our weaknesses, our vices, our virtues and our desires until we find an acceptable way of carrying on in our interactions with both objective and subjective reality. The measure of success in playing your own tale to yourself may be like the taste of the pudding, how well does it go down? How well does it allow you to go on, to forgive yourself after the losses of innocence? How well does it permit you a viable life in the face of your own shortcomings, betrayals, defeats and more dangerously problematic, your successes.
A viable working narrative of one’s life has to be rooted ultimately in a humility that allows you to walk that razor’s edge between the extremes of over-reaching delusions of singularity and debilitating states of worthlessness and self-loathing. A sustaining, self-correcting narrative is one that reasonably can handle the seductions of achievement while also letting you pick yourself up after the ego-punishing drubbings that every life encounters. The humility required for a humane personal narrative of one’s life is not the false humility of self-effacement, but a humility rooted in as rigorous an honesty as you are humanly capable of honoring.
By the time I realized I was living according to the novel or movie of my life that I myself had authored, I was already moving past the point where I probably no longer needed it to defend myself against the abyss. Like everyone, I’ve been tried by life and found, in many cases wanting, and in others discovered whatever virtues I might possess. My narrative for better or worse, permitted me to continue to function within the contradictory context of both continuity and change. We change over time, and our narratives change, and yet we remain the same people.
My own story of myself, like some novel I started writing and reading as a child, has begun, like memory itself, to unravel and fade within my mind. It may be that the path toward any achievable acceptance of our own temporality comes only, if indeed it comes at all, when the protective burden of our interior narrative begins to crumble and dissolve.
I will certainly be revisiting this subject.