(Part 3 of 3)
I have been lucky to have mentors throughout my life. As a young adult, there was one family friend in particular who took me under his wing. His name was Scott Gorman, and he died a few years ago. In his obituary, he is described as a humanitarian, arts organizer, writer, activist, and the first person without a college degree to win a Fulbright scholarship. Scott was what some psychologists would call a 'highly generative' person -- that is, he made a positive, lasting impact in his community, particularly among its younger members. And his life offers a lesson in how we can use storytelling to be generative people too.
This is the third in a sequence of three posts about what I’m calling 'personal myths': the stories we tell about ourselves, how we came to be, and where our lives are headed. The first two were about crafting and editing our personal myths. Here I will describe a set of common narrative patterns in the life stories of highly generative people like my friend Scott. These patterns provide a specific example of how our personal myth-making deeply shapes our lives.
The narrative patterns of highly generative people are, briefly: (1) a sense of being advantaged in early life, (2) witnessing the suffering of others, (3) moral steadfastness and continuity, (4) redemption, (5) conflicts between power and love, and 6) a pro-social vision for the future. We’ll come back to them in some detail soon.
Like a lot of generative people I’ve known, Scott was an amazing storyteller. His most powerful tales starred himself, as an unrelenting, engaged citizen, who worked for fairness, beauty, and peace. Scott once told me that his parents were both dead by the time he was a teenager, and that because he had overcome some substantial hardships in his youth, he felt compelled to help others, especially those more vulnerable than himself.
Turns out that the way Scott related his life story is typical of a highly generative person, at least according to Dan McAdams. McAdams is the author of a 2006 book called The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (which I will draw on heavily for my discussion here). In a body of research spanning almost 30 years, McAdams has shown that highly generative adults in the United States tend to tell uncannily similar stories about their lives, which feature the six themes I mentioned above.
I took a year off between graduating from high school and enrolling in university; during that time I renovated Scott’s garage into a livable writing studio and stayed there for six months. On the day that I had my wisdom teeth removed, Scott picked me up from surgery, drove me back to his house, brought me a pot of medicinal tea, and set me up with Lawrence of Arabia on his television, which he knew I hadn’t seen yet. So while I recovered on his couch, I also mended a gap in my education. This is just the kind of mentor that Scott was: he was there when you most needed him, and he anticipated your needs before even you were aware that you needed anything. It genuinely made him happy to take care of his friends.
When I read McAdams’ research, it helped me put a finger on something I’d only suspected about Scott: that his ability to conceive his life in narrative terms helped him to achieve his goals. In Scott’s personal myth, he was a hero (a narrative role), working to create a better future for his community (a narrative outcome), and he always framed obstacles as temporary and surmountable (providing narrative tension). This kind of personal myth has the power to sustain generative people, giving them the confidence and commitment to make continuous contributions to their communities. And across a wide range of individuals, generative people’s life stories are remarkably similar to one another, to the point that McAdams has coined a term for the genre: the commitment story.
A common narrative pattern -- the most common, in fact -- in a commitment story is redemption. Redemption, or what McAdams calls a redemption sequence occurs when a person transforms their suffering into a ‘higher’ and ‘more positive’ mental state. For example, when they transform fear, guilt, anger, or shame into happiness, joy, or excitement. Generative adults, McAdams found, create these transformations much more often than their less generative peers. Scott did too. When his wife of ten years left him for another man, he somehow managed to interpret the ensuing divorce as a favorable turn of events.
This tells us something important: the number of bad things that happen in a person’s life matters less than whether those bad things are interpreted in a good way. Redemption sequences are not synonymous with simply telling happy stories -- a highly generative person’s story does not avoid accounts of suffering, but tends to construe suffering as leading to some sort of benefit. People who do more good in the world are better at turning lemons into lemonade.
Five Additional Common Themes
Yes, yes, adding some positive twists to your life story seems like an obvious place to start in your process of becoming a better citizen. If you feel better about yourself, you will likely have more creative energy to put towards helping others. But McAdams’ research suggests that the path is less straightforward than that. Not only do generative people’s stories have a marked prevalence of redemption sequences, they are highly likely to contain five additional common themes. And to me these don’t seem immediately evident. They are:
A sense of being advantaged early in life. The story begins with a blessing, or some sort of privilege.
Witnessing the suffering of others. There is an early recognition that the world not safe, and life is not fair.
Moral steadfastness and continuity. As older children and adolescents, the generative person internalizes a set of core values. Throughout the person’s life, these values remain constant and unquestioned. As McAdams puts it, ‘Their narrative identities rarely give the starring role to the searching, self-doubting existentialist hero.’
A perceived conflict between agency (power) and communion (love). The trick here is that the more power the hero gains, the more able the hero will be to make a larger positive impact in the world. This ongoing back and forth between power and love drives the plot and gives the hero’s life story much of its narrative suspense.
Articulating pro-social goals for the future. The story has a hopeful ending, in which the hero’s good work will live on after the hero dies.
The six themes of a commitment story function in concert to create a certain type of individual, one who feels especially compelled to help others. For example, McAdams suggests that the contradiction between 1 & 2 sets up a moral contrast in the generative person’s life, which goes something like this: ‘I was blessed, but others suffered. Because I was fortunate and because others were not, I should make the most of my good status and work hard to make the world a better place.’ The highly generative person is what McAdams describes as a ‘blessed protagonist who ventures forth into a dangerous, unredeemed world.’
To be honest, I’m not sure if all of these themes were there for Scott. I don’t know whether he considered himself to have been privileged at an early age. And did Scott perceive a conflict between power and love? I wish he were still alive so I could ask him. Scott’s personal myth might not have perfectly fit McAdams’ model, and this reminds us that model is just that: a model. But generally speaking, these are patterns that we can consciously insert into our own life stories, in the interest of leading more magnanimous lives.
Is There a Pattern for Less-Generative Life Narratives?
While I was doing research for this post, I wondered if there was a similar model for less generative people’s life stories. So I wrote to McAdams and asked. His answer, in short, was ‘no.’ He wrote:
There is no clear prototypical narrative for people low in generativity. Part of the reason for that is that people can be low in generativity for so many different reasons — from economic hardships to trauma to mental health issues to just plain being selfish.
Although there is no prototypical life narrative for the less generative person, McAdams went on to point to two common themes in their life stories: the presence of contamination sequences and vicious cycles. The opposite of a redemption sequence, a contamination sequence is coded for when positive events have negative outcomes. And a vicious cycle occurs when the protagonist struggles with issues early on, and then continues to struggle with those issues, and they never get resolved. And these are patterns that we can consciously avoid when we’re crafting our personal myths, lest they lead us down a less generative road.
Towards the end of those six months that I lived in Scott’s garage, he gave me a silver whistle in a small black box, and told me that if I ever needed anything, I could blow the whistle, and he would come to my aid. I haven’t used the whistle yet, but I know some day I will, when I need his particular brand of guidance.
But just as we look to mentors, like Scott, for personal examples of how to live a profound and satisfying life, we can also look to research like McAdams’ for more generalizable guidelines. I think it’s wise to diversify the venues from which we seek life advice, because gosh darnit, great mentors like Scott can just up and die on us. Though their legacy lives on…
Picture of Scott Gorman from his obituary in the Skagit Valley Herald.