I have spoken several times about the biorhythms of school years: the exciting and hopeful new beginnings of each semester, the stressful and nostalgic endings of each semester, and the predictable doldrums of the middle. I want to call attention to another aspect of how we experience our years that transcends school and has significant impacts on our future.
I am sure that over Thanksgiving Break most students (and faculty members) fielded questions from family and friends about the school year so far: “how’s school going?”; “how are you doing in school?”; “how are you liking school this year?” There are many possible ways to answer these questions; the main ideas of the responses would vary, as would the highlighted events and each story’s ending. As we enter the last three weeks of this semester, we have a chance to revise these stories and/or extend them, writing a new chapter as we start a new sports season, present Capstones, or finish up major projects. This opportunity to create a new chapter in our stories is powerful.
In a recent article, author and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith, a positive psychologist who got her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, has highlighted the view of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who said that we are always in the act of creation, composing the stories of our lives. Smith also highlighted the work of Northwestern University Psychology professor Dan McAdams, who has coined a term “narrative identity” to describe our human ability and tendency to create our personal myths. These stories are divided into chapters (selected scenes we see as significant), guided by our deepest values and beliefs (the core covenants that have directed our actions and reactions), and held together by a central theme.
McAdams has discovered in his research two main types of personal narratives: stories of redemption and narratives of contamination. In the first type, the story moves from bad to good. They are stories of growth (sometimes through failure), communion and empathy, and agency. These story-tellers see themselves as being in control of the direction of their lives, progressing despite obstacles, loved by others along the way, and ultimately on the way to achieving good in the world. The second type of story—that of contamination—moves from good to bad, telling stories of stagnation or regression, isolation, and victimization. These story-tellers see themselves as spiraling out of control, unloved and alone, and trapped or blocked from doing good in the world. McAdams has found that those who tell their life stories in this second mode are more likely to be anxious, depressed, or scattered; whereas, those who see hope in their stories are more likely to be driven to contribute to society and to the good of future generations. The good news, according to Smith, McAdams, and others, is that even small edits to the way we tell our stories can have dramatic effects on our approach to our lives and our future.
Our family’s experience over Thanksgiving week illustrates these differing perspectives on the same story. Over that week, all of our children, their spouses and children, and our son’s girlfriend were with us in our home. As our children get older and their families grow, these gatherings are rarer, but from Wednesday to Friday, all 15 of us were together. During those three days, we visited three different emergency rooms: on Wednesday, our daughter in-law was treated for pneumonia and one grandson was treated for a badly sprained (luckily not broken) wrist; then on Friday, one of our granddaughters broke her leg jumping off a wall into the snow.
I could easily tell this story as a story of a holiday ruined with trauma, trying to get sympathy or highlight a kind of Lovett curse (and trying to find the scapegoat to remove it!). However, upon reflection, and in believing in the power of healing and love, I have told this story as one where family members stepped up to take care of each other and each other’s children, where people sacrificed willingly and readily for others, where parents stepped up to take on extra burdens for their kids and siblings. And the caring has continued, of course, even after everyone left and went their separate ways. The facts of the week remain the same—lots of pain and chaos and tears, lots of love and sacrifice and togetherness—but how I tell the story makes a major difference in how I see our family, our future, and life in general. I have found that to be the case each time I tell this story; the positive narrative helps others to see the future as hopeful, too.
This week some student-athletes were cut from teams or put in a non-starring role for the first time in their lives. On Friday, while dozens and dozens of 140-plus seniors presented their Capstones with great success, others encountered technical difficulties, stage fright, or aggressive questioners that left them feeling down. Even many of those who succeeded had struggled earlier during research, writing, or rehearsing. Each of these young people have a chance to tell their stories: “I worked really hard and had a great project, but I bombed the presentation (or my computer froze, or an audience member was unkind) and now it’s a failure; people probably think I’m stupid. I don’t want to go to school on Monday” or “I bombed my presentation, but I learned a lot about something I care about, and I know my friends, family, and teachers were really supportive of me.” The choice of how to craft these stories lies within the power of each individual. Facts are facts, and things go well, or they don’t, but the attitude and focus we take and the efforts we will take to move forward are under our control. If we approach our lives as stories of hope, focusing on growth, learning, communion and connections, and our ability to take action to improve, we will not only be more optimistic people, but as McAdams says, more likely to contribute to our communities and to the goodness of our shared future.
Tom Lovett is Headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy.