Hello, women over fifty, here are a couple of questions for you.
Who are you? Where have you been? What is your story?
Ok, now take a breath, and think again.
What is the re-story?
The truth is, our stories are continuously evolving with each moment.
When you are sitting in the middle of your middle age and trying to figure out how to move forward, it may seem counterintuitive to take a look back. But maybe looking back is the first step to looking forward.
Imagine this: who you have been in the past is interacting with who you are becoming now, in this moment. And imagine further, who you have been in the past is shifting as you evolve into your future.
We employ the same areas of the brain when we look back on our past as when we envision our futures. Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.
Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.
Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.
Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.
The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large.
So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”
Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.
For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.
Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.
Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.
Yes, this is daunting, both during ordinary times and especially during those times that life events throw our narratives into a tumultuous spin. It happened to my client when her husband abruptly ended her marriage, and to my friend, who was given a cancer diagnosis. These unexpected twists hurl our bodies into mid-air, leaving us upside down, nauseated, and uncertain of footing.
Life is dreadful, yet exciting. After all, who would want to read a story that doesn’t surprise? Would you keep reading if you could predict the ending?
Even though we may not be able to predict the turns our narrative takes, we do get to choose how to respond to the twists. Re-storying our lives from the middle is a creative act. And creativity requires us to greet the unexpected with openness, learn to tolerate ambiguity, and privilege complexity over simplicity.
Life is a process that unfolds over time, and the story that we make of it awaits our innovation.
Here is a very brief example My Mother and Me:
At age 16 I thought my mother was rigid, uncool and unsympathetic to my feelings and needs. I wrote the story that she didn’t care for me and I lived it for years. Today I look back and I view a different story. I see my mother as a young woman trying to protect me from my ignorance and daring. I also see that she may have been threatened by my fearlessness, having never had the opportunity to push as far as I was pushing. I see myself not as the victim of her strict rule, but as a young girl unaware of the complexities around me. Today, I see my mother and me as co-managing life over 50. I admire her energy, humor and enthusiasm for living. I look forward to growing old with her. The story of our relationship has been re-storied.
How might you look back at your life thus far with a new perspective? How would it be to imagine a future different than the one you have been mindlessly anticipating or dreading? How are you unfolding in a way that you never expected?
In StoryTelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall explains that since the beginning of time men and women understand and develop through the use of story.
Until the day we die, we are living the story of our lives. And, like a novel in process, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator.
And Sarah Manuguso in her memoir Ongoingness suggests:
Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.
It’s hard to be in the middle, that place where the past has changed and the future is uncertain.
When we embrace our place in the middle as creator, not of what happens, but how we narrate what happens, we have authority. From our age in the middle, we have the authority to story and re-story our ongoingness.