Starting when I was a freshman in college, I worked as a part-time newspaper reporter. As the youngest and most inexperienced person in my newsroom, I was given the assignments nobody else wanted. The job taught me how little I knew about people.
I frequently went to a home or office out in the middle of a rural nowhere — on a dirt road 30 or 40 miles from the office — and I couldn’t imagine the people there could have anything interesting to say. It was a prideful attitude from a young man who thought too much of himself.
I soon discovered that even the most mundane person has a story — some meaningful narrative about what he’s seen or felt or lived through. Many times, though, their stories seemed so routine to them that they didn’t recognize the drama or inspiration that they had to share.
I often left interviews with “boring” people — folks who I’d met with a feeling of disdain — with a sense of humility and a realization that I was the one who didn’t yet have much wisdom to share.
On the way home from work this evening, I listened to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia which deals with people who experience great loss and have a choice about whether to cling to their old narratives or change their stories entirely — when they find the old story has come to a dead end.
There was a story about an older woman, for instance, dealing with the death of her husband. After he died, her life fell apart. Everything about her old story involved him. Nothing about the narrative of her life made sense without him in it. Would she cling to a life narrative that left her in unhappiness and depression? Or would she write a new narrative that allowed her to move on?
As I listened to the stories of people dealing with their losses, it hit me out of the blue that I shared something in common with these folks. The story I’ve told myself about my life has gone off track and it no longer even makes sense. As a result, I’m suffering depression from the loss of an unrealized life that meant so much to me — a narrative that’s no longer my future.
In a flash, I realized that I don’t have just one story. Over the course of my life, I’ve had at least half a dozen different narratives — and every time something has fallen apart, I’ve gone through a fallow period that felt like death — and then I’ve emerged with a new narrative that let me move on.
I now have no choice but to write a new narrative.
When I was a teen-ager, I was going to save the world. I was going to get into politics at a young age and become a great political leader. A country that was divided and torn was going to turn to me — as president of the United States — to save us all. This wasn’t just an idle fantasy. It was my very strong narrative. I believed it wholeheartedly. I was determined to make it come true — and I had the personal tools and skills and drive that could have made it come true.
Over time, I lost faith in politics and I lost faith in the “hero narrative” that I was driven to fulfill. It’s more complicated than this — and the changes happened in stages — but I eventually discarded that narrative entirely. I now have absolutely no interest in a corrupt and immoral political system — and I no longer believe I need to save the world. (Now I just want to save my own corner of the world.)
I’ve had other narratives along the way. When I was a young newspaper journalist, I was going to own a large and profitable chain of newspapers. I spent many hundreds of hours working out the tiny details of a plan for a new type of newspaper that would have been stunningly innovative for the time. But then the newspaper industry started dying — and reality forced me to give up that narrative.
After I got out of politics nearly 10 years ago for the last time, I stumbled around in the metaphorical dark looking for a new way forward. I wasn’t going to be president. I wasn’t going to be a media mogul. I wasn’t going to save the world. What was I going to be? It was a dark period for me.
About four years ago, I fell in love — and that love came with a brand new narrative. I saw all the details in my mind. It was so clear and complete. I had a brand new narrative about what my life was going to be. And then the story went off the rails. Like a mourning husband whose wife has died, I hung onto that story, though. For all this time, I’ve treaded water — cut off from the story that meant so much to me, but unable to give it up.
It’s time for me to write a new story for myself, but in order to do that, I have to give up on things which have died — things I couldn’t control.
There’s no brilliant insight in deciding that one must move on in life after a crushing loss, but until the mind is ready for it, there’s no sense in someone saying, “You need to move on.” But something in me is ready — at least for the most part — to start fresh. Even if that means giving up on the fantasy of being loved and needed by someone who meant the world to me.
I don’t know exactly what my new narrative needs to be. I don’t know what my new identity is. I know that bits and pieces of past narratives will be woven into the new story, but it will be an entirely different narrative, at least when taken as a whole.
I have stories to tell about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve felt and what I’ve lived through — in a way that I never imagined when I was an 18-year-old who knew everything. I have more than one story. I have a dozen stories. But if I want a meaningful life right now, I need a new story — new goals, new loves, new (or at least amended) desires.
It’s painful to give up a life I desperately wanted and needed — especially with nothing yet to take its place — but I’m coming to see that I have to give up on something I can’t control. I have to find a new narrative about where I’m going and what I’m going to do — and, hopefully, who will be coming along for the adventure with me.
It’s time for a narrative that will let me start over. One more time.