How Do You Tell The Story of Your Life?

A headshot of a woman divided into six vertical segments
Cover images of the books of Mark P. Freeman and Jack Bauer '89, woven together, then separated, just like our memories and the stories we tell ourselves. (Photo illustration by Stephen Albano/Holy Cross)

Narrative psychology experts and authors Mark Freeman and Jack Bauer ’89 share how humans make sense of their lives through the stories they tell themselves and others — and why aging can be welcomed.

This is a story about the stories we tell — to ourselves and to others — to create meaning in our lives. Taken together, those stories reveal what we value, what we hope to achieve and who we have become.

"That's what's so exciting and so important about the study of personal narratives: Through evaluation of our life stories, we might become better able to construct a life more deliberately and mindfully," says Jack Bauer '89, professor of psychology at the University of Dayton and an expert in the field of narrative psychology. His overarching hypothesis: "How people interpret and plan their lives predicts how their lives turn out."

This spring, Bauer released his second book, "The Transformative Self: Personal Growth, Narrative Identity, and the Good Life," which was included in the Oxford University Press series, "Explorations in Narrative Psychology." The entire series was edited by Mark Freeman, Holy Cross Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society and professor of psychology, who published a new book of his own this year, his sixth, "Do I Look at You with Love? Reimagining the Story of Dementia."

Despite their shared admiration, Holy Cross connection and research field, Freeman and Bauer took a bit of time to find one another professionally. Although Freeman was teaching at Holy Cross when Bauer, an economics major, was a student, Bauer didn't begin studying Freeman's work until a decade later in his postdoctoral fellowship in personality development at Northwestern University.

"Both Mark and I are very interested in the development of personal identity and exploring the ways that people create meaning through the stories they tell," Bauer says.

The Role of Reflection

When mentally building these stories of ourselves and our relationship to others, Freeman and Bauer agree that the ability to reflect is key. "We're all interested in planning for a future that's good; we set goals to make our lives better or to perpetuate things that we value," Bauer says. What's important is to understand that our thoughts are interpretations of things we have experienced, he adds. When we understand this, we can begin to look at what motivates our behavior. "If we notice the way we have been motivated by a particular value in the past — in our work, in a relationship — we can understand ourselves better and react accordingly in the future."

Two book covers and two headshots of men
Narrative psychology experts and authors Mark Freeman (top) and Jack Bauer ’89 and their latest releases.

In this, reflection in the form of hindsight can be particularly valuable, Freeman notes. "An experience has a particular meaning in the moment, but over time, that meaning can change," he explains. In the moral realm especially, people often act first and think later, and it is only after they gain some distance on the situation that they can view it in a new light. Freeman refers to this phenomenon as "moral lateness." For example, in the heat of the moment you can be convinced of the rightness of your point of view only to realize later that there's another way of seeing things. "Looking back on what we couldn't — or wouldn't — see before can allow for growth. Through memory and our stories, we can take stock of things and perhaps correct the errors of our ways," he says.

Bauer's research shows that the way humans construct their stories is also revelatory. When we tell stories of our lives to ourselves and others, we may choose to tell a particular tale, but the way we tell it is far less conscious, he says: "When telling personal stories, we use narrative tones, underlying themes and scripts that we borrow from cultural master narratives, and we do all these things mostly unconsciously."

One such cultural master narrative is that of personal growth, Bauer explains in his book. "In literature we see this master narrative in the bildungsroman genre — the genre of character development," which is recognizable to persons ages 8 to 80. Though separated by centuries and cultures, "The Odyssey" and the Harry Potter series satisfy for being familiar, even predictable, yet inspiring: The protagonist takes a journey of their own choosing, encounters teachers, develops new skills, endures trials and emerges as the hero. Stories like these become bestsellers for a reason, Bauer says. "We like them because they showcase our culture's ideal of personal growth toward a good life, so we try to apply these stories to our own lives and the lives of those around us. We can make sense of others' lives because we share certain narratives, even though we're not always aware of it."

Narratives can be freeing and allow us to see ourselves more multidimensionally and truthfully, but they can also imprison us.

Mark P. Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society

Like the protagonist in such a novel, people may consistently use certain themes — power, love or growth — across a range of personal stories, reflecting what those people value, what motivates them and how they see themselves in relation to others, Bauer continues. "These narrative features of meaning-making are how we define ourselves, often without even knowing that we're doing it," he says.

For example, consciously or not, we all engage in analysis when listening to someone and trying to discern what they're saying. "So, if you start to listen to yourself," he says, "and become more aware of how you tell your stories — do you often start on a low note and end on a high one, for example — you can begin to ask yourself, 'Is that the one best or true way to interpret what happened, or could I tell the story in a different or more meaningful or constructive way?'"

This is important, because there's no denying that our stories can impact us profoundly, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, Freeman says. "Narratives can be freeing and allow us to see ourselves more multidimensionally and truthfully, but they can also imprison us," he notes. "We can get locked into narratives in ways that stunt our self-understanding and growth." In such instances, mindfulness can be of value, as it can assist people in shedding constraining, destructive narratives and building new, healthier ones.

Does this mean that the stories we choose to tell define ourselves and others? "That's a complicated issue," Freeman says. "As important as our stories are, I'm not sure they define us." Individuals are composed of many things that go beyond their stories, he observes. Freeman experienced this firsthand while witnessing his mother's 12-year struggle with dementia, a journey he chronicles in his new book.

"In my experience with my mother, I had to think beyond narrative because she had landed at a place where her life and self were beyond it," he says. "Despite the fact that her memories were largely gone, my mother was still a vital human being who could sing and laugh and take pleasure in things. She also still had a memory of what it meant to be a loving mother, just not the particular one she happened to be." Hence the question found in the title of Freeman's book: "Do I Look at You with Love?" — which she once asked upon learning, yet again, that he was her son.

A Different View of Aging

Freeman's experience with his mother's dementia raises other questions: What happens to our stories as we age? And can we be ready for the effects of age on our concept of ourselves or those we love?

"I don't know that we can prepare ourselves," he says. "I can tell you this, though. Before going through the situation with my mother, I would have thought about aging in a more negative way, as deterioration or decline. Some of that's real; it's hard to deny it. But through the experience with my mother I came to think about it differently and realized that, even in circumstances like dementia, where an element of decline is inevitable, it may be possible to encounter and experience it in a different, more 'welcoming' way."

If you look back at your life stories over time, you'll often notice that they change to some degree because you're seeing them through the broader lens of subsequently lived experience.

Jack Bauer ’89, professor of psychology, University of Dayton

As his mother's illness progressed, Freeman learned to meet her in the moment rather than insist she be the mother of his memory. "It took us a while, but that's what we were able to do, and as a result, we really had our eyes opened to the kind of beauty that might be found in life's very transience," he says. "Sitting outside with my mother, just being with her, seeing her take in the day, her face lit up by the sun, came to be very moving in a way. It was as if I could see the preciousness of life right in front of me. So, difficult as these years sometimes were, I'm immensely grateful for the time we had together."

Assuming a person is of sound mind, does older equate with wiser? Based on Bauer's research, the answer may be yes, at least on average. "It turns out we become more adaptive with age," he explains. In other words, the older we get, the better we are at meaning-making. "Each time we understand something, we're creating that understanding in that moment. From one week to the next, it seems like we're recalling incidents, but we're also constructing them anew each time. If you look back at your life stories over time, you'll often notice that they change to some degree because you're seeing them through the broader lens of subsequently lived experience."

And experience has its benefits. Older adults, despite their mounting losses, for instance, tend to place a greater emphasis than younger adults on the kinds of concerns and motives that promote growth.

"On average, as we move through adulthood, we focus more on experientially meaningful activities and relationships than on social status, self-image and material gain — and it's the former values and motives that facilitate both growth and well-being," Bauer explains. "If the research translates into advice, it's that rather than doing things for status and self-image, we're better off spending time doing things we love — and especially doing things with people we love."

Different though Bauer's and Freeman's respective projects are, they appear to be of a piece on this last idea, suggesting, in their own distinctive ways, that the path to a good life entails living beyond the ego and attending to what truly matters. In the end, this is what makes for stories worthy of being told.