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Abstract

This article will share the preliminary findings from a wider and ongoing interpretive synthesis of narrative identity literature. First, we provide the analogy of Dante’s journey through the ‘inferno’ to contextualize the review. Second, we share interpretations of literature pertaining to how life stories create meaning and suggest polarity might play an important role in forming complex and coherent meanings of life and selfhood. Meaning making in life stories is seen as a dynamic position of equilibrium between polarities in experiences that lead to themes and patterns. We suggest as an example the interplay between self and the world creates a person’s sense of agency, the extent a person believes they create their world or are created by it. Third, we interpret literature pertaining to how meaning creates life stories and suggest some examples of practise that may increase complexity and coherence through the expression and embodiment of meaning. Concluding by asking, if it is the balance between these different experiences of meanings that provide a person with the greatest sense of who they are?
Narrative Identity: From The Inside Out
This article will share the preliminary findings from a wider and ongoing
interpretative synthesis of narrative identity literature. First, we provide the
analogy of Dante’s journey through the ‘inferno’ to contextualize the review.
Second, we share interpretations of literature pertaining to how life stories create
meaning and suggest polarity might play an important role in forming complex
and coherent meanings of life and selfhood. Meaning making in life stories is
seen as a dynamic position of equilibrium between polarities in experiences that
lead to themes and patterns. We suggest as an example the interplay between self
and the world creates a person’s sense of agency, the extent a person believes
they create their world or are created by it. Third, we interpret literature
pertaining to how meaning creates life stories and suggest some examples of
practise that may increase complexity and coherence of the expression and
embodiment of meaning. Finally, we consider if it is the balance between these
different experiences of meanings that may provide a person with the greatest
sense of who they are.
Keywords: Narrative Identity; Life Story; Meaning; Complexity; Coherence.
Part One: A Hero's Journey
“Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in the midst of a dark wood -
the true way was lost.”
(Dante, Inferno - Canto 1, cited in Baxter, 2018 p. 4)
This article will use the poetic narrative of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ with its
contrasting imagery as an allegory that we believe holds true for life’s entire journey. In
essence, we will use a story to explain a story. In his writing, Dante describes a spiritual
and personal journey down into and out through the ‘inferno’. He attempts to bring
order and understanding to his chaotic world that is full of contrasting opposites. By
writing the Divine Comedy, Dante was attempting to unite and overcome the divisions
between two cultures of his day; the courtly culture of worldly love and the monastic
culture of delayed bliss. So he takes readers on an experiential journey through his
beliefs by travelling through polar landscapes, through history and through his psyche.
He takes readers on a journey ‘inside out’. As we follow Dante’s journey we will share
some preliminary findings from an ongoing and wider literature review as part of a
Masters degree project that the second and third authors are advising on.
For this project, we are using a meta-ethnographic approach to review narrative identity
literature from the perspective of meaning. The purpose of this is to undertake an
interpretative synthesis of the three main narrative identity theories as identified by
Vassilieva (2016) in order to develop an integrated model. Meta-ethnography has been
chosen because as Campbell et al (2012, p. iv) suggests it an “effective method for
synthesising qualitative research”. Meta-ethnography is also an interpretative approach
that translates studies into each other through the analyst’s worldview whilst
maintaining the character and holism of each study, an aim that we wanted to achieve in
this project (Noblit & Hare, 1988). It is through this translation of meaning that
possibilities may be created. Translation takes place via metaphor, which we
acknowledge for some this might seem unscientific or imprecise and yet as Stein (2004,
p. 11) concludes “Metaphors can help us think our way into new territory. They can
provoke reflection and suggest new avenues” or as Lakoff and Johnson (2008, p. 3)
posit “If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical,
then the way we think, what we experience and what we do every day is very much a
matter of metaphor.” For these reasons and for the purpose of this project we will
embrace the use of metaphor and invite you to read this article through these intentions.
Our hope is to discover new relationships, create a new synthesis of ideas and find new
perspectives in narrative literature that might contribute to a greater understanding of
the topic and increase discourse. We will tentatively describe some preliminary
interpretations emerging from these early stages of the review that align with the spirit
of ‘second wave’ or existential positive psychology (Wong, 2011) and may act as a
useful reminder to guide our practice with others. First, we will set the scene by
describing the landscape we will be travelling through. Next, we will descend inwards
exploring how life stories create meaning then finally we will ascend outwards
suggesting how meaning then creates life stories.
We are all ‘heroes’ in our own epic story that we call life. We may not feel like a hero
all of the time or even some of the time. We may not be prepared to accept that we have
heroic qualities to our character, but we all have faced challenges that bring fear,
anxiety, sadness, hurt, loss or doubt to our lives. We have all suffered in facing these
challenges and we are changed, as a result we might grow as a people and our lives will
be shaped accordingly. Perhaps, heroism is an inherent quality of being human if as
Efthimiou (2017, p. 152) suggests “heroism is understood as transformation through
struggle, experienced and expressed in the everyday in varying degrees or forms “. In
Baxter’s (2018) examining of the classic poetic narrative ‘The Divine Comedy’ we find
an unlikely hero in Dante. In his journey through the ‘inferno’ there is a useful allegory
for not only an outward spiritual journey of self-transcendence but also an inward
psychological journey of self-actualisation, simultaneously unfolding. Dante’s journey
is a ‘pilgrimage’, a mindful and attentive journey through the landscapes of experience
to create a life and become a person or as Van Deurzen (1998, p. 39) states “What I let
myself go into, gets absorbed in, becomes part of me, temporarily”.
For Dante, the ‘inferno’ is a mysterious inner world of shadows, historical ghosts and
misshapen figures taking part in paradoxical struggles (Hollis, 2013). In this underworld
we may catch fleeting glimpses of inner stirrings, the ripples on the surface of our
personal depths that may provide direction, elicit strength and build courage or immerse
a person in confusion, weakness and fear. Yet at the same time it is from the passage
through the ‘inferno’ that transformation takes place for Dante. A person’s journey
through his or her own ‘inferno’ is a journey of seeing through, of going inwards to
come outwards in order to reach ‘paradiso’ a place of enlightenment (Hillman, 1975). It
is a hero’s journey of striving to bring harmony to our world and balance to the
dialectical experiences of life that may challenge a person (Campbell, 1949; 2004).
Living is creating a story of meaning that bridges divides and accommodates the
understanding that ‘light’ cannot exist without the ‘fire’. Life is our own individual
story of creation, of creating a life and of being created.
Part Two: From The Outside In
“But I? Travelling there? Who would grant that?
I am no Aeneas, nor am I Paul.
For that, neither I nor any other thinks me worthy?”
(Dante, Inferno - Canto 2, cited in Baxter, 2018, p. 16)
Dante’s journey is a descent into the ‘fires’ of the underworld, his inner desires,
passions and drives. It is a descent into himself, a journey of interiority. There is also an
alchemical quality to the journey. In this fire and heat of the underworld there is a
decomposition taking place, a breaking down of his old ways of being, his old beliefs
and his old life that has been lived with little awareness or questioning (Jung, 1967).
Dante is confronted with images of the horrors of hell, the extremes of humanity and
himself. The darkness of humanity is being illuminated, the paradox and polarity in
living is brought into Dante’s full view. Wracked with doubt of his own worthiness to
be on this journey, Dante is encouraged onwards by ‘Virgil’, the spirit of the admired
Roman poet who comes to guide and mentor him on his journey. Is it not true that
everyone has at sometime in life been torn between two opposing choices or felt the
inner tension of life pulling them in different directions or has had to confront
reconciling some paradoxical situation? Experiencing life’s polarities often brings doubt
and indecision. Perhaps as Hollis (2004, p. 88) suggests this is because both life and
selfhood are ”full of mystery, full of riddles, full of paradox that cracks the brain and
divides the heart”.
The Narrative Landscape
What are life stories?
Life can be thought of as travelling through diverse landscapes of experience, from the
‘dark’ of overcoming obstacles and bridging divides to the ‘light’ of climbing the peaks
and enjoying the views. In doing so we may create and become the story that represents
this journey of life. A person’s life story may also be their identity. This idea has been
explored by researchers in a number of theories such as ‘Life stories’ (McAdams,
1993), ‘Self-narratives’ (Bruner, 1990 Polkinghorne, 1988; Hermans, 1996a, 1996b)
and ‘Personal myths’ (May, 1991; Hollis, 2004). In each case these stories, narratives
and myths are dynamic, evolving maps of reality that create a sense of self, how the
world works and how a person fits into their world. For Bruner (1990, p. 46) they are
“metaphor(s) of reality” and for May (1991, p. 20) “self-interpretations of our inner life
in relation to the outside world” and for McAdam’s (2012, p. 119) “an internalised and
evolving story of the reconstructed past and imagined future that aims to provide life
with unity, coherence and purpose.” We shall refer to these collectively as life stories
for ease of reading. Life stories evolve from the structuring, interpretation and
integration of our experiences across a lifetime (McAdams, 1993). They are how
“people make sense of their lives” (Bauer, McAdams & Pals, 2008, p. 84) “give
meaning to their lives and relationships” (White & Epston, 1990, p. 13) and may be
viewed as being “polyphonic” in nature or a “plurality of consciousness” (Hermans,
1996b, p. 5). As Spector-Mersel and Ben-Asher (2018, p. 2) suggest “we interpret
ourselves and our world through stories”. Life stories are meaningful explanations of
the experiences that shape the consistent and coherent nature of selfhood. They are
evolving and unifying self-creations drawing on a person’s inherent resources and
cultural heritage (McAdams & Pals, 2006). Life stories are interwoven with characters,
plots, tone, mood and narrative themes. McAdams (1988; 1993) describes narrative
themes as the recurrent motivational themes contained within life stories. These are
clusters of story content that describe a person’s goals, intentions, desires and wants
through time, similar to a piece of music containing a melody. At least four narrative
themes relating to self-growth and well-being have been identified (Bauer, McAdams
and Pals, 2008). The agency theme, a person’s striving to master their world, assert their
autonomy and expand their selfhood so differentiating themselves. The communion
theme, a person’s striving to lose their individuality, participate in something larger,
beyond the self and relate to others. The intrinsic theme, a person’s striving to meet
their own internal motivational concerns as opposed to those of others. The integrative
theme, a person’s striving to deepen their understanding and integrate their perspectives
on life and self (Bauer, McAdams and Pals, 2008; McAdams, 1993).
How do life stories relate to meaning?
Literature suggests meaning is central to life stories. For Bruner (1990, p. 116) we are
drawn into activities “in which the ‘meanings of self’ are achieved” and for
Polkinghorne (1988, p. 152) “the self then is a meaning”. Martela and Steger (2016, p.
531) describe meaning as constituting three overlapping yet distinctive facets;
coherence, that life makes sense, purpose, that life has direction and significance, that
life is worth living. Joseph (2015, p. 101) suggests, “people are intrinsically motivated
to find meaning and seek benefit from experiences”. Sommer, Baumeister and Stillman
(2013) go further suggesting as humans we have a need for meaning to contribute
purpose, self-worth, efficacy and value. A life story may be thought of as a way in
which life is organised so that it makes sense for a person. It is the vessel in which
experiences are sequenced, organised and interpreted by creating a structure of
meaningful connections and patterns. In order for new meaning to be created, old order
and meaning may be be re-made, deconstructed and broken apart. The story being lived
is disrupted and its meaning changed. Jung (1959), Erikson (1959) and Levinson (1978)
describes life as passing through these cycles of stability and disruptive change creating
and shaping meaning by asking a person to find new balance, resolve contradictions and
make choices. Stories follow a similar pattern, something changes, something falls
apart, old order breaks down, and there is a separation that creates a polarity in the story
(Booker, 2004; Campbell, 2004; Hillman, 1975; Hollis, 2004, Neumann, 1954).
Tensions arise from conflicting goal priorities and imbalances in life’s relationships
(Worth, 2015). New order emerges as a person’s actions attempt to resolve the tension
and find new balance in those relationship thus integrating the polarity (Booker, 2004;
Polkinghorne, 1988).“All things are woven together and all things are undone
again…all things unite and all things separate” (Jung, 1967, p. 65). It is in the chaos or
trauma of ‘falling apart’ with the challenge, fear and suffering which this brings that life
may be experienced as meaningless, worthless or directionless (Crossley, 2004; Joseph,
Murphy, & Regel, 2012; Martela & Steger, 2016). And yet, it is in this crucible of chaos
that as Martela and Steger (2016) rightly suggest a person may choose to change their
story and create new meaning to their life. From chaos, order may come. From non-
being, being may come. Is this a creative and emergent self-meaning making process
that may be central to all life stories?
The Journey Inwards
In the first part of this article we journey inwards asking, “How might life stories create
meaning?” in order to identify examples in literature and make some preliminary
interpretations. Here we bring together the role of polarity in experiences with stories
and the creation of meaning.
Identifying the divide
McAdams (1993, p. 112) states, “A good story raises tough issues and dynamic
contradictions”. As discussed earlier, life stories contain polarities, opposites or
paradoxes in experience creating tension or conflict that needs to be resolved (Worth,
2015). Similarly, Capra and Luisi (2014) suggest a basic conflict in life is between self-
assertive and socially integrative thinking and values, Angus et al (2004) suggest it is
between internal and external worlds and for Little et al (2002) it is between personal
and social needs. Similarly, Spector-Mersel (2011, p. 173) concludes “Identities through
stories is a process carried out within a complex web of influences, bringing together
individual, society, and culture; inner and outer worlds; free choice and limiting factors;
past, present, and future - all of which point to its holistic nature”. Polarities in
experience create divides that brings dimension to the experience. From our
investigations the dominant theme in narrative literature is the self - world divide. A
person makes sense of their selfhood in relation to their world and vice-versa. For
instance, we have all at sometime or another asked questions of ourselves like What is
wrong with me?” because of experiencing a negative life event. In this situation we are
viewing selfhood against the context of experiences in the world. We are creating a
sense of our selfhood from our experiences. This relationship of co-creation may be
seen in Fosnot and Perry’s (2013, p. 11) consideration of evolutionary process
concluding, “organisms create their environment and are created by their environment”.
Similarly, from a psychological perspective Bruner (1997, p. 147) concludes, “the
experienced world may produce Self, but Self also produces the experienced world”.
What story may be living within me?
What story may be living through me?
Exploring the divide
The self - world divide creates spatial positions from where a person may view their
life, their experiences of the world and themselves. One is inseparable from the other
and yet one may not be the other. The spatial positions are perspectives between and
within experiences in a life story, positions of ‘here’ and ‘there’ or different ‘voices’ of
selfhood (Hermans, 1996a). A person’s interactions with the world provide feedback in
the form of reactions and experiences. These interactions help shape perspectives
beyond the person’s own. Life stories convey these perspectives and they have long
been described with metaphors such as ‘I’ and ‘Me’, the ’knower’ and the ‘known’, the
‘author’ and the ‘actor’ (Bruner, 1990; James, 1890; McAdams, 2015; Sarbin, 1986). It
is recognised that these different metaphors add nuances to each perspective because
that is the beauty and depth that metaphor offers (Lakoff & Johnson, 2008). However,
we interpret these holistically to reflect that life stories are ultimately concerned with
the hero (the person) and their world (their experiences of life). As Spector-Mersel and
Ben-Asher (2018, p. 2) state there is a “tendency in narrative literature to address
“narrative” as general metaphor for subjectivity”. It is our interpretation that narrative
encapsulates more than a subjective perspective of experience because of this inter-
relationship with the world. The world provides an objective experience that a person
projects their subjective experience onto, thereby life and life stories contain both
perspectives wrapped up in the other (Neumann, 1954). In a sense, our perspectives
connect across the divide.
What reflections of my world may I see in my story?
What reflections of my story may I see in my world?
Bridging the divide
“A good story provides narrative solutions that affirm harmony and integrity of the
self” McAdams (1993, p. 112). Literature suggests that a person’s stories can act as
‘meaning bridges’ across self - world divide (Anderson, 2004; Osatuke et al, 2004). The
story may represent a conceptual position that encompasses, integrates and balances the
polarities in experience. “The existence of polar opposites in the human mind requires
an ordering, in which the contrasting elements are combined, reconciled, separated, or
treated in some other way” (Hermans, 1996b, p. 1). McAdams (2006) suggests stories
coherently order life to explain how a person came to be. Similarly, Habermas and
Bluck (2000) describe stories as a fundamental way of organising a person’s
experiences to create a global coherent understanding of their selfhood and their world.
This coherence depends on their cognitive capacities; to sequence the event temporally,
to understand their cultural normative life course, to draw casual connections between
important life events that explain actions, change or development and to extract
overarching themes from life. Fournier et al (2018) expand on these ideas suggesting a
coherent selfhood depends on a person being a coherent agent who’s goals, values and
needs fulfillment are coordinated and a coherent author who’s life is comprehensible
and thematically unified. Their story is narratively coherent. Similarly, Piaget (1970;
1977) suggested cognitive processes are rooted in a person’s biological structure that is
a product of evolution. Learning and the development of selfhood share a similar
dynamic, organising process that balances dialectical positions (Fosnot & Perry, 2013).
Balancing the polarities in experience can then be thought of as creating narrative
coherence, a process of meaning or sense making. Here agency is being represented as a
thematic point of equilibrium in a life story system, functioning to equilibrate a person’s
perspectives of being ‘self’ created or created by ‘world’. Bamberg (2010) makes a
similar point when discussing the dilemma of who constructs agency in life stories, the
self or the world? Concluding, it is a “navigation between the two poles as a dynamic
process, as one that is situated and continuously in flux” (Bamberg, 2010, p. 7). Van
Deurzen (1998, p. 39) similarly concludes, “the balancing act that we all have to work
with is that of going outwards towards the world whilst maintaining a centeredness and
equilibrium”.
What creates tension in my story?
What creates balance in my story?
Living the divide
Each action and choice whether small, momentary or large a person makes creates
change in the world. A life story is unfolded, networks of connections are created
experientially, organising and uniting experiences to becoming an embodied meaning.
Their life story is acting as a framework or a simulation of reality based on their
accumulated understanding of themselves and their world (Feldman-Barrett, 2017;
Ferrari, Weststrate & Petro, 2013; Kunzmann & Baltes, 2005). Through the living of
their story meaning is experienced and embodied (Johnson, 2013). By reflecting on and
expressing meaning it may be re-received, evolving the meaning, creating an expressed
meaning and further unfolding the story (Polkinghorne, 1988). In this way a person
authors and re-authors their story as it is lived through choices both intuitive and
reasoned (Ferrari, Weststrate & Petro, 2013; Joseph, Murphy & Regel, 2012; McLean,
Pasupathi & Pals, 2007). As a person grows the complexity of their story will grow
(McAdams, 1988). Numerous, seemingly random events are woven together to form a
complex, organised, living and changing pattern; who I am at this moment (Capra,
2004; Capra & Luisi, 2014). Embedded in this is a person’s sense of agency, a
perspective formed from living and experiencing their own beliefs about the extent to
which they can shape the world or are shaped by world (Little, Snyder & Wehmeyer
2006). Their life story is acting as a framework to organise the flow of experience thus
creating a coherent, unified perspective of who they are and what they can do. It is
through this story that a person acts in the world and interacts with the world.
What meanings am I choosing to live?
What tensions am I choosing to live?
We have journeyed inwards through the ‘darkness’ of the ‘underworld’ that is full of
polarity, paradox and tension. We have also witnessed the breaking down or pulling
apart that takes place in the fires of the ‘Inferno’ and its role as the source of creation of
‘light’. Now we journey outwards and explore how we radiate our light.
Part Three: From The Inside Out
“Light that took the shape of a river,
Dazzling in its radiance. It rested between two banks,
each of which were painted with the miracles of spring.”
(Dante, Paradiso - Canto 30, cited in Baxter 2018 p. 175)
From the crucible of the ‘inferno’ Dante emerges softened and thickened by the fires.
He is changed and changing becoming more cohesive, coherent and complex. There is a
sense he has gained self-knowledge and a depth of selfhood that afford him the wisdom
of his own being and from this he may bring forth his radiant light as a gift to the world.
He may shine, his true spirit released. Dante sets verses in polar opposition in the
‘Inferno’ to verses in the ‘Paradiso’ drawing out the polarities in opposition that are
found in a person’s experiencing of life and yet also demonstrating there is a balance
that may be achieved. There is a re-forging of selfhood, a reconstituting of parts and as
form changes there becomes the possibility for a person to shine, to reveal their realised
potential.
The Journey Outwards
In the second part of this article we journey outwards asking, “How might meaning
create life stories? Here we explore how the meaning we make may impact our daily
practise of living in the world.
A journey of change
“The evolution of lives is akin to the process of re-authoring, the process of persons
entering into stories, taking them over and making them their own” (White & Epston,
1990, p. 13). Life’s journey is one of creating meaning as McLean suggests (2007, p.
263) “The life story is an extended but selective autobiography of personal experiences
and interpretations of those experiences”. It is also a journey of living this meaning. As
we have already suggested in this article, the equilibration of polarity or the balancing
of dialectical positions in experience may drive the creation of meaning but does this
automatically equate to a more coherent life story? McAdams (2006, p. 122; p. 118)
suggests, “Good life stories need to be coherent, but coherence is not enough” and “Life
is messier and more complex than the stories we tell about it. Yet the stories need to
convey some of that complexity…” Perhaps a life story is a person’s attempt at
balancing coherence with complexity? Loevinger’s (1966) conceptualisation of ego
development describes the increasing complexity found in the relationship between
selfhood and the world over time (Bauer, Schwab & McAdams, 2011; McAdams,
1988). This complexity can be viewed from the perspective of both self-complexity and
narrative-complexity. Mansfield, McLean and Pals (2010) describe complexity as
indicating a psychological maturity and depth. Growth inherently involves a person
becoming more complex. Self-actualisation and self-transcendence are both processes
of recognising complexity in our selves and our lives. If we act through our stories then
they need to contain a degree of complexity that encompasses the complexity found in
life. A point Spector-Mersel and Ben-Asher (2018) similarly imply when identifying
narrative crafting styles using coherence and complexity as their continuums. Perhaps in
essence there are two processes in action in the journey of change, a self-actualising
process of becoming a person (Bauer, Schwab & McAdams, 2011) and a self-
transcendent process of authoring a life (Wong, 2016).
How am I authoring my story?
How am I becoming my story?
A journey together
Pasupathi (2007) reminds us that coherence may be created at the expense of
complexity. Stories are edited for ourselves and for audiences. How we listen as an
audience has the ability to rob a person of their complexity and the power to be fully
themselves. In Pasupathi and Billitteri’s (2015) studies investigating the impact of
listening on autobiographical storytelling found listeners co-construct stories with tellers
reducing emotional distress. Attentive listening influences the extent, elaboration and
coherence of the storytelling. The extent and elaboration of storytelling may allow
complexity to emerge. Skills such as honouring the teller’s autonomy in telling, being
congruent in disagreeing, scaffolding through questioning and sharing expertise adds to
the listening affect. Spector-Mersel (2011) identifies six selection mechanisms used in
autobiographical storytelling; inclusion, facts are added; sharpening, facts are
elaborated; meaning attribution, significances are added; omission, facts are deemed
irrelevant and missed out; silencing, facts are deemed conflicting and missed out;
flattening, facts are minimised. We can speculate these contribute to whether an event is
adjusted to fit a person’s life story, maintaining the status quo or their life story is re-
authored to accommodate the event, changing their sense of selfhood and model of the
world (Jospeh, Murphy & Regal, 2012). McLean, Pasupathi and Pals (2007) suggest
narrating problems helps meaning emerge and we further suggest this is likely to be a
more complex and encompassing meaning. Negative life events have a privileged
position in the development of selfhood and self-understanding. The repeated
storytelling of negative events increases the likelihood of meaning making and
recognising enduring themes that increase coherence. Coherence then takes effort
(Smith & Sparkes, 2006). In telling our story we are inherently expressing meaning that
may have a different extent of complexity and coherence to the meaning we inherently
create through the experience of living our story that creates an embodied meaning.
How am I expressing my story?
How am I embodying my story?
A journey through
In this busy and hectic modern world, it is important that we create time and space so
we might provide ourselves with what we need psychologically to further unfold our
life stories. As Joseph (2015, p. 104) suggests a person is able to change and grow when
the “environment is able to meet the individual’s needs”. Mindfulness and meditation
skills may help a person create a richer, deeper and more complex reservoir of
experiential information from which our life stories may draw and create meaning.
“Before one can deepen as a person, one must visit the depths within” (Hollis, 2004, p.
74). Developing practices of open awareness, shifting attention between inside and
outside experiencing, contemplative inquiry and journaling inner experiences may all
help foster a greater recognition of and a positive relationship with the complexity of
the stories we are living (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2016; Progoff, 1980; Zajonc, 2009).
Complexity and polarity are not something to be overcome with ‘one’ being better than
the ‘other’ (Hermans, 1996b). If mindful awareness opens a window into our depths
then life’s questions may invite a person to live through this depth. At some point on
life’s journey, we are each invited to consider more intimately who we are and what the
purpose of our life may be. Living asks big questions of each us. Furthermore, as Hollis
(2004, p. 114) suggests, “If we do not ask large questions our lives will be small”. Our
sense of proportion to these questions is a personal perspective and relative to the
choices we make. Perhaps, these big questions prompt us to go deeper into ourselves for
the insight to live with complexity and live beyond polarity (Cousineau, 2001; Elder &
Paul, 1998; Neumann, 1954). Life stories invite such questions because we need to
make choices and take steps to unfold stories. In doing so we reason, conceptualise and
assesses the coherence, reliability, novelty and believability of our beliefs, (Mercier &
Sperber, 2011). Questions invite this reasoning for answers however, as Cousineau
(2001, p. 24) concludes perhaps it is not “answers we are seeking, it is understanding”.
If this is so, might meaning be our greatest psychological need in life? How we ‘hold’
our questions may help us connect with our understanding of experience. If we hold
questions with ease, gentleness and patience then learning may unfold for a person to
experience and fully absorb. Facione et al (1995) identified seven dispositions of critical
thinking that may yield clues to the nature of ‘holding’ a question; truth-seeking, open-
mindedness, self-confidence, inquisitiveness, and maturity, analyticity, systematicity. If
as Hollis (2004, p. 114) states, the “meaning of our life is really wrapped around
specific questions” then how we hold these questions might allow a more complex
meaning to be lived, after all “Meaning is not something found or sought, it is
something experienced” (Hollis, 2001, p. 90).
What meaningful question is my story requiring me to live?
A Final Reflection
We are the authors of our stories, the actors in our stories and the audiences for our own
stories. In these self-defining roles we create our lives, live out our lives and experience
our lives. In doing so, meaning is created of our lives and ourselves that is seeking to be
increasingly coherent and complex. To be heard and experienced as a person through
their life story in meaning orientated therapies such as White and Epston’s (1990)
‘Narrative Therapy’, Frankl’s (2014) ‘Logotherapy’ and Wong’s (2010) ‘Meaning
Centered Therapy’ is an invitation to re-envision, re-shape and further unfold their life.
Perhaps this re-envisioning and re-shaping is the client’s process of finding balance
between the self-complexity and self-coherence that may play out in the expression and
embodiment of meaning in their life. If the stories we live and tell create an expressed
meaning then it is because the experience of living and hearing of our stories creates an
embodied meaning. Perhaps the deepest divide and yet seemingly the simplest to bridge
is found between this meaning we express and embody. Perhaps, it is the balance
between these different meanings that imbues a person with the greatest sense of who
they are? It may also at the same time offer us all the greatest challenge to who we are
and who we are becoming.
“Life consists of living contradictions, living contradiction takes courage” (May,
1991, p. 73)
Word count = 5269
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... The theories of development psychologists (Erikson, 1959;Levinson et al., 1978;Vaillant, 2002) infer growth potential would exist in the notion of authenticity as a unifying, development principle for the dialogical nature of the self (Medlock, 2012). Newitt et al. (2019), highlight two further narrative themes that have been associated with self-growth. The intrinsic theme, the motivation to prioritise one's own internal desires over those of others, and integrative, the motivation to deepen and assimilate self-knowledge (McAdams, 1993). ...
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