Does Life Have a Plot?

The title of this blog – “When I Come to Be Old” – comes from a list of resolutions that Jonathan Swift compiled as a young man about how he would behave in his old age. It is a litany of the things he finds annoying about the older people around him and includes the reminder not to “tell the same story over and over.”  We old people tend to tell stories to others and to ourselves.  We are trying to make sense of our lives.  Boring those around us with repetitive stories is definitely to be avoided, but is trying to make stories out of our lives a good thing or a bad thing?

We want to make sense of things.  We want to believe that things happen for a reason.  Whole religions are built out of this.  When we wonder why “the wicked prosper,” Christianity moves the end of the story to eternal life.  Buddhism and Hinduism and other religions of karma and reincarnation assure us that it all works itself out over many lifetimes. Whether we believe this or not, however, we want things to make sense now.  We want to be able to read the stories of our lives to a satisfying conclusion.  So we make the past into a story.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.  The philosopher Galen Strawson thinks that our culture encourages people to construct continuous narratives of their lives over time, while life might be better understood as “episodic.”  Things happen and then other things happen.  Lives do not necessarily make sense.  Freud gave us the idea that everything was rooted in our childhoods; if we could just follow the thread we would understand.  Maybe.  But there are random events like illnesses and weather and which roommate you were paired with as a college freshman.

In Swift’s time, it was common to talk about life in seven years segments.  Swift’s mentor, Sir William Temple (one of the old men Swift is talking about in his resolutions no doubt), wrote that “mind and his thoughts change every seven years, as well as his strength and his features.”  The seventh year (7,14, 21…63, 70) was seen as “climacterical” and having significance as a turning point.  (Climacteric is now a term we use synonymously with menopause, but that is just one kind of change.)  This theory assumes definite differences between your old self and your new self.  And surely, none of us can understand all of the decisions we made forty or fifty years ago.  And yet we try to connect the dots.

But life is not entirely in our control (another lesson we might not learn until old age), and bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason – and vice versa. The Bible contains the most significant story of a man whose life does not make sense – Job.  The last chapter of the Book of Job (where he gets new riches and new children) is thought to have been tacked on at some later date to make us all feel better.  Mostly it makes us wonder, does God really think children are replaceable?

We want it all to make sense.  In some cases it seems to for a while.  People who work hard do well – but not always.  Good parents have good children – but not always.  Love begets love – but not always. As we get old and look back on our lives – what holds it all together?  What part of my eight-year-old self endures (besides some unreliable memories)?

Autobiographies written in old age reinforce the cause-and-effect route.  Benjamin Franklin wants to convince you that he plotted out his life and developed his character according to a set of guidelines which he developed as a young man and is hoping to pass along to his poor son.  On the other hand, Penelope Lively entitles her memoir Making It Up, and by following the forking threads of decisions she made and things that happened to her, makes it clear that it could have gone another way.

Galen Strawson thinks the human population is divided into diachronics (those who see life as a continuous narrative) and episodics (those who remember events but do not forge a link). He intimates that the latter have an easier time seeing each day as a new beginning.  One might think of the Greek differentiation of time as chronos (linear calendar/clock time) or kairos (special experiences outside of time). Old age is a time for episodic reminiscing, which is often followed by an attempt to make sense of the episodic sequence.  Maybe this is a fool’s errand.  Surely it is beyond our ability.  Among the questions the Buddha said were “inconceivables” and should be “put aside” were questions as to how karma worked. 

So, when you sit down to write those memoirs or family histories, please consider that your life is not a novel.  You do not need to find a plot (or to invent one).  A number of my short stories are about people who read the wrong narrative into things (try “The More Loving One”).  But maybe reading any narrative into things should only be done provisionally.

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