meaning through narrative

Coming to terms with my inner creative child has been difficult. He's been repressed by an impenetrable iron weight, composed of the artificial social structures that branded my youth. Among other factors: the Asian-Canadian cultural influence, a friendly yet closed-circle city environment, the push to pursue traditional education paths. These factors are subtle and arguably trivial, but they formed my primary reference point.

All I wanted to was to be wild, be goofy, and be different.

But I couldn't fathom the story where young Sam would be taken seriously for his love for the performing arts or freeform crafts. It's funny because I've always considered myself to be a non-artist — no real talent, no convincing aptitude. Looking back, it wasn't due to my lack of effort. I was thinking artistically, whether it was posting strange and slightly obtrusive photography albums on early Facebook, participating in school-quality musicals like West Side Story, or practicing black-and-white sketches at the local Tiger Music Studio.

While immersing myself in creative endeavours was a sweet pastime as an early teenager, it was hard to continuously associate with these activities as I grew up. The sway from the opposition side was real: slowly you'd start hearing about occupations in medicine, engineering, and business, displacing the hope for the arts as nothing more than a fun hobby.

Fundamentally this dilemma is about narratives. Specifically, the narrative we tell ourselves about who we *think* we are (or worse, who we should be). When we get caught in the micro of the everyday, we often overlook the macro of who we're becoming. In my case, the narrative of becoming a doctor or lawyer was so stereotypically overplayed, but still held important weight because people were serious about it. Everyone could see the conventional success stories play out. Our immediate circles — parents, teachers, friends — were an unrelenting source of circulation, ensuring that these narratives persisted like a potent perfume scent.

Though in my experience, safeguarding against the mundane is a more accessible, simpler exercise than expected. Stories, narratives, grand adventures act as a portal into a new kind of world — these elements become antifragile as we embody them. We should acknowledge how powerful narrative is as a tool for thought, and a tool for belief.

Thus, narrativizing the world is a way to find meaning.

But too much narrative thinking can be damaging. This is especially true if believing in some grand story drags you out into the wasteland of empty thoughts, passive moods, and lethargic actions. The more you narrativize, the bigger the role the narrative plays in your life. It activates a self-fulfilling prophecy. So it makes sense that someone who narrates their life inside their head constantly believes there’s no other way to experience life: it’s literally all they know. The alternative of not sticking to a story would be a terrifying thought to them.

This idea that we need to experience life as a story for it to be meaningful can be a dangerous one. Most people are so wedded to narratives that they can’t imagine living without one: they’re novelists of their own life, trying to construct a plot arc that seems exciting or good or ethical. We lose ourselves even more so when this plot arc is twisted and tailored to pander to other people's opinions and perceptions. At that point, how much control do you even have? The question to ask ourselves: how are we supposed to resist falling prey to a narrative that doesn't fit us?

Spirituality has one answer: being aware of the narratives that you're self-selecting into, and accepting that life isn't always going to follow a predestined format. While it might sound fluffy, what feels good and right to you is often one of the only indicators you need as a potential escape rope. Practically, we can think through the lens of optimization. To optimize for our ideal outcomes, including healthy relationships, healthy bank accounts, healthy lifestyles, it's arguable that being sure of yourself and your own choices is most important. Without at least a threshold level of clarity & confidence in the story you've cultivated for yourself, you won't even have a right to play the aspiration game.

In an upcoming piece, I'll try to follow a tried-and-true framework to build out the narrative for my inner creative child: the hero's journey. The quintessential narrative arc that is consistently plugged in pop culture and other mass media. We resonate with tales like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen or Peter Parker because we get to ride the rollercoaster with them, in all of the glorious peaks and troughs along the way. In my exploration, I want to anchor on one theme: a journey of improvisation. I'm excited about this exercise because I want to see the interplay between two concepts that (theoretically) shouldn't go together: the emergent properties of unconventional improv vs. the structured pathways of classic narrative.

Until then, run your own race and craft your own story :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 4 months ago on Thursday the 3rd of February 2022.

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