Today's post is by Grace Hibshman at University of Notre Dame on her recent paper “Narrative, Second-Person Experience, and Self-Perception: A Reason it is Good to Conceive of One’s Life Narratively” (The Philosophical Quarterly 2022).
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when Frodo and Sam are struggling to persevere on their quest, they turn to remembering the tales of old and wondering whether their journey will one day be put into songs and tales and told by the firesides of their people. Conceiving of their life narratively in this way as part of a great web of stories helps the hobbits find meaning and courage, and it seems that it can be similarly helpful for people in general as well.
But why might this be? Why might conceiving of one’s life narratively be conducive to one’s flourishing? In my paper, I argue that conceiving of one’s life narratively as a part of the songs and tales of old can prompt one to imagine how an audience might experience hearing one’s life narrative, mediating how someone from a second-person perspective might perceive oneself. This process can yield valuable second-personal productive distance from oneself, enabling one to acquire aspects of a direct I-thou experience of oneself and as result valuable self-understanding.
There are at least two important practical implications of my argument. First, if imagining how an audience would hear our life narratives can transform how we ourselves see ourselves, then we must choose carefully which people we regard as the audience of our lives. If Sam in the Nameless Lands had kept at the front of his mind how someone like Denethor would see his quest, Denethor who had called it ‘madness’ and ‘beyond all but a fool’s hope,’ he may have despaired of his quest after all. Instead, his imagination of how the hobbits in the shire would retell his adventure gave him new hope for his pilgrimage, reshaped how he experienced it, and gave him the strength to in fact bring his quest to a successful completion.
A second practical implication is that if the kind of life narratives we imagine having can shape how we perceive and experience ourselves, then we must choose carefully what narratives to steep ourselves in. The narratives we internalize shape what kind of narrative arcs we can envision for our lives. By steeping himself in the noble tales of old, Sam equipped himself to imagine his life enfolding in a similarly noble fashion, which in turn transformed his experience of the arduous parts of his journey and helped him set his mind on becoming the kind of person who would not turn back. Sam inherited his way of understanding what he was experiencing from a great web of narratives handed down to him by his community.
The web of narratives in which we choose to immerse ourselves can similarly shape our understanding of our lives. It is worth asking: What stories do we tell ourselves? What stories do we tell those we love?