Opinion | The pitfalls of the narrative self

Opinion by Hannah H. Kim
May 23, 2021, 9:13 p.m.

As a graduating doctoral candidate, I find myself facing many transitions ahead. At times like these, we often use a book metaphor: The Stanford chapter is coming to a close, and a new chapter is about to begin. This book with various chapters, of course, is my life. We find this way of talking intuitive, and we adopt this narrative understanding of ourselves and our lives. Philosopher Daniel Dennett writes, “we are all virtuoso novelists. . . . We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography.” 

Storytelling is powerful. Stanford’s own Storytelling Project “explores how we live in and through stories and, even more importantly, how to deepen our lives through our own storytelling.” The ever-popular TED Talks are built around stories, professors exhort the pedagogical value of storytelling, and studies show that engaging with stories activates not only parts of the brain related to language, but also parts having to do with sensory experience. Receiving information in narrative form, accordingly, has been shown to help with information retention.

Given all the benefits of storytelling, some philosophers argue that we ought to understand ourselves by telling stories to ourselves. Personal identity is a perpetual source of discussion in philosophy, and a narrative understanding of the self offers a neat answer to the ever-thorny question of what it is that makes us, us: we, and by extension, our lives, become understandable through the autobiographical stories we tell ourselves. A narrative self is a constructed identity, not unlike a fictional character created through an author’s creative activity. Some ethicists argue that living a good life — not only a subjectively pleasant life but a meaningful life — requires developing an understanding of our lives as a whole. And this requires binding the various “chapters” of ourselves into a unifying narrative.

Zora Ilunga-Reed writes that our scope is limited when it comes to self-understanding, though a slow and reflective process might help overcome the challenge. Kamil Aftyka defends big ego, writing that if “ego” just means whatever makes us metaphysically distinct from others, then ego need not be problematic. But the problem with a narrative understanding of self is that it puts this ego at the front and center of the way we understand ourselves and our lives. The narrative self has long bothered me, and teaching the Buddhist doctrine of non-self recently helped me revisit, and sharpen, the nature of the disagreement. 

First, there’s the question of whether people really see themselves and their lives in narrative terms, and whether living a good life requires taking up a narrative perspective. The philosopher Galen Strawson is doubtful, arguing that there are both “diachronics” — people who see themselves as something that was in the past and will be in the future — and “episodics” — people who don’t consider themselves something that was in the past and will be in the future. Diachronics are more likely to see their lives in narrative terms, but if we want an example of an episodic, we might think of Meursault from The Stranger, who sees no problem with watching a comedy the day after his mother’s funeral. The court condemns him because their narrative understanding of Meursault’s actions suggests that he’s a monster with no soul. But the point is that we can come to understand both perspectives. Indeed, Strawson suggests that those who support the narrative self “are really just talking about themselves.”  

Setting aside this empirical question of how people do in fact understand themselves, I’m inclined to think that the narrative self isn’t a morally conducive framework for most people because it definitionally puts oneself in the front and center of the narrative — and this, too often, leads to one’s centering of the ego as well. When the ego is in check, it might be synonymous with “self-esteem”; but when ego runs amok, as it often does, it becomes synonymous with self-importance.

Teaching Buddhism’s doctrine of non-self reminded me that so much of the world’s spiritual/religious teaching can be boiled down to “starve the ego; feed the soul.” The worry with the narrative self is that it gets in the way of doing exactly that — the mindset where oneself is the main character in a story risks encouraging myopia when it comes to others. Is it possible to understand myself as a character in a story without relegating everyone else to minor characters, or at least characters that are dispensable to the story at hand? 

Think about the hundreds of stormtroopers that are shot down in Star Wars stories, or all the low-ranking bad guys that a hero hurt before a final face-off with the villain. I have a hard time getting immersed into such stories because I can’t shake the feeling that every one of those stormtroopers or minor criminals are main characters in their own stories. It’s just that the story we’re told doesn’t have them as the main character. What happens when society is filled with people who narrate their own stories with themselves as the main character? 

We don’t even need to go to fiction to see how narrative self understandings can hinder empathy and truth-seeking. I recall watching Brett Kavanaugh testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018 and thinking that even important teachings like “work hard and don’t quit when things are difficult” can be corrupted when combined with a narrative approach that puts oneself in the center. Kavanaugh’s opening statement betrayed the egotistical framework with which he approached the allegations. “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from the process,” he said, continuing “You’ve tried hard. You’ve given it your all. No one can question your effort… [but] it will not drive me out. You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit. Never.” 

In a hearing centered on a woman he had harmed, Kavanaugh turned the occasion into an exercise of perseverance, proof that he’s not a quitter. It smacked of self-interest, starkly in contrast to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s statement, which somehow came off more public-interest oriented despite the extremely personal and vulnerable nature of what she shared.

The Kavanaugh hearing provides a stark example of narrative self-understanding gone bad. Of course, I’m all for perseverance and hard work and resilience and standing up for what one thinks is right. But when other people and their hurts are involved, it’s reprehensible to make things about one’s own goals and one’s relentless, champion-like pursuits. When one is so focused on one’s own trajectory, how do we make room for others? Using an autobiographical narrative as the lens through which we experience the world can’t encourage empathetic recognition of others.

Maybe I’m just turned off by a few bad examples. Sometimes, when colleagues or students — especially the ambitious types — talk about wanting to Help People and worry that their current path isn’t the best way to do so, my heart’s eyes narrow in suspicion. Of course I support making this world a better place for others. But sometimes I can’t help but get a glimpse of that (self-aggrandizing) ego that just wants to be the kind of person who can, and will, change the world. What a crime it would be to rob the world of such an effective humanitarian! (But in the meantime … could they start by being a better colleague, friend, teacher?) Is it possible to be drawn to the good without wanting to be the kind of person who is drawn to the good? Apparently we spend most of our time staring at ourselves on Zoom, but really: is it ever possible to fix our gaze away from ourselves, even in altruism?

In the end, my problem with the narrative self is that it encourages a kind of living that keeps one’s eyes on oneself — and I just don’t know if this is a good, let alone the best, way to live. 

Nic Bommarito argues that modesty begins with turning one’s gaze away from oneself. The modest person doesn’t experience the world in a self-involved way, and that’s what’s so refreshing about them. Strawson writes that “the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling,” and I agree. When life is no longer “about” you in a way that Anna Karenina is about the eponymous character, we might be open to other people, experiences, and things as they truly are. Maybe self-understanding is like happiness; if you have to actively pursue it, you’re doing it wrong. All the more reason to stop telling stories about ourselves to make sense of who we are.

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Hannah H. Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department. She is also an Assistant Editor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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