I discovered two opposing approaches to life and the self in a chapter on Lucian Freud in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes. (For increased readability I’ve divided the following passage into short paragraphs and added my own emphasis.)
In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential, not moral.
Episodicists feel and see little connection between the different, unfolding parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of self, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will.
Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument that forges their self and their connectedness.
Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens and then another thing happens.
Freud is Barnes’s example of a typical episodicist: someone who sees life as a series of random events. I’ve always been the opposite. Maybe it’s because I read so many novels, memoirs and biographies, but I like to think of life as having a shape and a meaning, of one thing leading to another or prefiguring something else and so on.
However, when I look back, so many aspects of my recent life – a Master’s degree that never led to related work, six years of working at entry level in libraries without being able to advance, and living in 10 different places over the past 10 years – seem meaningless. I didn’t become an academic or a librarian, and my husband’s and my (usually) enforced nomadism was at odds with my desire to feel I was settled somewhere and truly belonged. It all looks like false starts, missteps and failures.
I encountered a Cormac McCarthy quote some years back (but now can’t find it again for the life of me), something to the effect of: we tell ourselves that life is a coherent story so as to trick ourselves into believing it means something. That’s overly depressing and nihilistic, I think (well, it is McCarthy!), as the urge to make a meaningful story out of life is surely a fundamentally human one. But would I be better off thinking of life as random?
Another quote that really challenges me is this one from Eckhart Tolle: “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” Uncertainty feels threatening to me. I like to know where things are going and why. Yet if I could just turn my thinking around and welcome all that randomness could offer, would life feel more open-ended and exciting?