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Record Type: Review   ID: 158

The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self

McAdams, Dan P.

This is a marvelous book, and yet, from the viewpoint of exceptional human experience, or what William James called "the MORE" in human experience, it is disappointing. However, even though McAdams, a personality psychologist who specializes in how people develop life narratives, deals primarily with conventional themes, not those injected into a life story by exceptional experiences that can change both identity and worldview. He points out that "the emphasis in this book is on how the story develops, from birth to old age. I offer a lifespan developmental theory of how modern people create identities through narrative, beginning with the origins of narrative tone in infancy and ending with the mid-life and older adult’s efforts to create a satisfactory ending for the life story by establishing a generate legacy of the self" (p. 5).

His underlying motive in writing the book is his belief "that the major psychosocial challenge facing all of us as modern adults is to make something good of our lives in our own time, place, and ethos. ... To a large extent, the good life is justified by the good story. And the good life story is one of the most important gifts we can ever offer each other" (pp. 6-7). I certainly agree with that, but I feel that a conventional life story as such can only offer major sustenance to someone who has not potentiated one or more EHEs. Those who have had one or more EHEs will add a dimension to their stories that render them exceptional and highly unique. And their very difference and uniqueness gives them a universal appeal. They include the person’s encounter(s) with the MORE, and the entrance of this dimension into one’s life alters everything. Nonetheless, this book has great value in setting forth a framework for a life story with or without an EHE. (It is just that with an EHE there is MORE to tell.) The range of this book is indicated by the three parts: Making Lives Into Stories (4 chapters), Story Characters (2 chapters), and The Mythic Challenge of Adulthood (5 chapters). In the epilogue, he writes about the postmythic stage of our life stories in which "it is time to evaluate the story that has been produced. Ego integrity involves the eventual acceptance of that myth ... the prospect of integrity in the postmythic years challenges us to receive ‘one’s one and only’ personal myth as if it were [a] gift. In old age we become recipients of the myth we have generated from adolescence onward." This is the most positive statement possible in a conventional world. The "last for which the first was made," to quote Robert Browning. McAdams quotes from Wordsworth’s "Though nothing can bring back the hour/of splendor in the grass ... We will grieve not, rather find ... in the primal sympathy/which having been must ever be" (p. 279).

To me, to any EHEer, this is only a glimpse of a door that leads to a state of being that is deathless and ever-generative. When our exceptional experiences are potentiated in the course of writing our life stories, there is never an end but countless new beginnings all leading home, to that "primal sympathy," which is known as a primal unity, with a splendor far beyond that of primal youth. As humans we have the gift of consciousness which, like life, is organically generative, which means to me with the capability of continuous creation. The choice is always ours, whether to choose convention or to choose our uniqueness, which, being attuned to life itself, never stops growing. There is no end to the levels of consciousness that can be known and so become part of our story. And at that point it no longer is "your" or "my" story but ours. At that point we are living not so much for self as for life, or the road that goes ever on. What joy to be on it!

Publisher Information:New York: Guilford Press, 1993. 336p. Appendix 1: Agency and Communion: 281-291; Appendix 2: Nuclear Episodes: 293-299; Chapnotes: 301-325; Ind: 327-336; 1 table
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