July 1st, 2016

One Perfect Life

“There is not a short life or a long life. There is only the life that you have and the life you have is the life you are given, the life you work with. It has its own shape, describes its own arc and is perfect.”

This passage, attributed to the ancient Greeks, is easy enough for anyone favored by fortune but these are hard words for those who find themselves at a significant disadvantage.

It would be hard to argue that life is anything less than perfect if it is long, filled with loving family and friends, material comforts and personal qualities that help us achieve our goals.

But what of the life that is short and lived in isolation, poverty and without the skills or the opportunity to improve our condition? The truth, as always, lies somewhere between these extremes and the life we live takes its shape from the way we describe it to others and to ourselves.

Writing in the August 10, 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Julie Beck traces the development of the stories we tell about ourselves through the human lifespan. Citing the work of Professor Dan McAdams of Northwestern University and others, Beck describes a layering process in which we form our persona first as actors, adding the roles of agents and authors as we move through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and into our later years.

In childhood, the stories we tell about ourselves focus on plot as a sequence of actions. Later, when we begin to set goals and strive for their attainment, we become agents as well.

In later adulthood, we add the role of author as we integrate ideas about our future with our present and past. We look back on the events of our lives and shape them into stories telling what we have learned and how we have been changed by our experience.

There are stories of redemption in which we make mistakes or suffer any number of losses, disappointments or indignities, yet manage to grow in the process. Loss teaches us a valuable lesson, helps us to draw closer to another person or to shift our priorities in a way that leads us to discover new opportunities.

Sometimes we don’t recover and, rather than stories of redemption, we are left with stories of contamination where the positive trajectory of our lives is interrupted in ways that we can’t repair.

Our lives are complicated and they contain stories within stories, sequences of redemption and contamination interwoven into the grand arc of our master narrative. It is no surprise that research has shown a positive correlation between redemption stories and feelings of well-being.

Professor Jonathan Adler at the Olin College of Engineering adds that well-being is further enhanced by feelings of agency and the presence of good relationships. Monisha Pasupathi, a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah, explains that when we tell our stories to others, they are enriched by the give-and-take of the conversation.

Whether I am reading an anonymous Greek saying or an article on life as story, my thoughts turn to our work as psychologists helping people stuck with stories that bring more pain than pleasure and tip the balance of hope in the direction of despair.

In my hospital practice, I have met good people who, under the influence of delusional beliefs, did irreparable harm to themselves and others. When they recover their sanity with the help of proper medication and treatment, they are often left with the desolation of shame, guilt and hopelessness.

How is this the Greek ideal of the one perfect life? Where are their stories of redemption and how can we help to find them?

For the past year, my wife and I have been visiting a family member in a memory care center for people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. These visits have given me an intimate look at the way these diseases can change a life story and the picture, while certainly bleak, is not without its redemptive motifs.

The facility is staffed by dedicated and caring workers who treat the residents with respect and structure the environment to provide optimal levels of stimulation and opportunities for meaningful social interaction. Over the time we have been visiting, we have come to know many of the residents and their families as we shared our stories in formal meetings and casual conversations.

We have learned not to test our loved ones by asking them what and whom they remember but simply to be present, to join them in the moment, and to respond, not to their often jumbled memories, but to the emotional tone of their message.

As psychologists, we do this with our patients every day but it takes practice with a family member or a friend.

In a room filled with accomplished men and women torn from the moorings of time and place, I scan their faces and wonder what stories they are telling themselves. One says she is looking for her lost husband. Another shouts at whatever demons he is fighting at the moment. Most are placid or asleep. Staff and visitors bring food, magazines, a gentle hand, a warm smile – the simple gift of their presence. They listen and tell the stories their loved ones are no longer able to tell for themselves. I like to think that the Greek ideal of the perfect life is here even in this room of fractured stories, that redemption is still within reach, and that we bring it to one another.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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