2 Jan 2011

What's Your Story?

Old Couple
Photo credit: Ryan Morrison

As an assignment for a psychology class I once took, a group of us had to interview couples over 65 about their life story. It was part of research on Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, and looked for levels of ego integrity versus despair during the later stages of life.

I have to admit I was apprehensive. I expected we would be setting ourselves up for a few long afternoons that would be either awkward or boring.

But the assignment had to be done. A few weeks later, on a chilly day in October, we went on our way, armed with a questionnaire and a long list of interview questions that ranged from vaguely personal to downright intrusive.

We had an appointment with a retired baker and his wife. Our contact had assured us they were willing, and talkative by nature. On top of that, there would be cake. With any luck, by the time we got to the questions about their sex life, we'd be on a sugar high.

I couldn't have been more wrong, at least about the interview. (The cake was gorgeous.) They welcomed us with open arms and we met two people who had been together for nearly fifty years and held on, through everything life had thrown at them, including running a business together. They were eager to share their story with us - even the parts they didn't want on tape.

The man was an introvert. He'd been happy as a baker, hiding between sacks of flour, hard labour and, much later, machines. His wife - the vocal half of the couple - thrived in the shop. It wasn't long before she knew the whole neighbourhood, weaving her threads into the social fabric, one piece of well-meaning advice at a time.

They had raised three sons together, who in turn had fathered several children. The grandchildren still visited most weekends.

But the story we were told wasn't all saccharine. There had been illness and a baby lost at birth. We could feel the overwhelming pride they took in their three healthy sons, and the sense of failure when one of them had run off with his brother's fiancee. They were content with their relative health, but she worried if he would manage, in case she'd die first.

They counted their blessings, the streaks of luck and those they had worked hard for. Still, awareness dawned how soon they would have to leave it all behind.

Those mandatory afternoons, spent with 'our' couple, changed something in me. They helped me understand how fragile we are, yet how resilient. Life takes us through twists and turns and what doesn't kill us really makes us stronger. Our ability to learn and adapt is virtually inexhaustible.

On that winding road from birth to death, we spin the stories of our lives. And every single one of these stories is interesting. How could they not be?

  • A good story needs a protagonist. - Like you!
  • A good protagonist needs hopes, dreams and desires. - What are yours?
  • To make the story interesting, add plenty of conflict. - Which hurdles are you facing?
  • Build up tension. - Where will you go from here?
  • At the end of the story, the character has changed. - Who will you become?
We are not just living our lives. We are creating our own life stories.

With all the elements in place, each of these stories is interesting, each person a fascinating creature. All we need is the time and the intent to look, ask the right questions and listen.
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1 comment:

  1. Have just come across this blog and when I was 30 I had just studied Erikson when my father told me he was terminally ill at 57. He said some classic stuff I have always remembered - that he was satisfied with how he had lived his life [integrity] though he wished he could have had his full 3 score years and ten. It has always stayed with me and been a comfort even...


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