Acceptance Adam Phillips Contingent Self-Esteem Control Creation Existential knots Experiential avoidance Frustration Hope Life maps Narrative Identity Structure Worry

Tyrannical Narratives

Why is it that Pastor Rick Warren’s (2002) book The Purpose-Driven Life is the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in history, apart from the Bible? In a similar vein, but from a different background, Viktor Frankl’s (1962) Man’s Search for Meaning continues to sell strongly to this day. Perhaps because books like this remind us of our aching desire to shape our lives to trajectories that seem consequential (to us, and thus to our tribe, our culture) evaluated on how fulfilled we feel with our lot.

We are story-telling creatures, and our stories need to contain some narrative arc, some cognitive structure, some “meaning”.  The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that “it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity.”

Our sense of meaning and purpose, our values and motivations are based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and our world. Charles Taylor tells us that stories about self and society are how humans construct the “horizons of meaning” which then form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity in our lives.

The most important stories that we tell, retell, and reframe are the ones that we do not generally recognise as stories at all. We could call these “metanarratives.” These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. We do not recognise them as “stories” in the sense of events unfolding in a temporal frame but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted “truth” of the way things really are.

What is striking about these metanarratives is how closely their plots parallel and mimic the Christian chronicle. Just below the surface, we find the common threads of a secularized theology: a fall or awakening into sin, the redemptive quest, conversion and transformation, temptations to backslide, persevering in salvation, and an expectant hope for final happiness and fulfillment. 

Tim Smith writes in his book Moral Believing Animals: “So deep did Christianity’s wagon wheels wear into the ground of Western culture and consciousness, that nearly every secular wagon that has followed—no matter how determined to travel a different road—has found it nearly impossible not to ride in the same tracks of the faith of old. Such is the power of moral order in deeply forming culture and story.”

What interests me in all of this is what we do when certain narratives and life-rules (often stated as small chains of narrative) start to dominate our lives in ways that cause us suffering. Here’s a narrative that dominates mine: if I am not writing everyday and publishing frequently then my life is worth naught. I might still be caring for others, and myself, learning and developing as a human being, enjoying many of the pleasures of being alive and conscious, but if this narrative is not being adhered to, even slightly, it’s all over. 

I call this a ruthless and totalitarian narrative, a tyrannical narrative, because there is no space in it for slippage or imperfection. You may not share my specific totalitarian narrative, but I bet you’ve got some version of this which you follow. Whatever its focus, it is a narratives driven by a burning desire that will only settle for complete satisfaction, and it often chooses to do this in a life sphere where complete satisfaction is unattainable. Which to be fair, is pretty much every sphere of life.

“The perfectionist,” which is perhaps another name for someone ruled by ruthless and totalitarian narratives “is always an ever-failing god, never merely a struggling animal,” writes Adam Phillips in On Balance, hinting here at the implicit narcissism of our striving. Perfection is when the satisfaction demanded by our narratives is achieved; perfection is when there is no gap between desire and consummation. The only problem with desire is that it involves frustration; and frustration, whatever else it is, is an acknowledgement of incapacity. 

So rather than the ruthless and totalitarian narratives, what we ultimately need is a capacity for incapacity, for being animals (Great Apes) rather than gods.

But how satisfying is this as a narrative? Not especially. Non-human animals lack narratives, which is why we denigrate them, and feel superior to them. And yet, they are satisfied more often than us living as they do without the pressures of narrative: no future goals to complete, no past failures to mourn. Incomplete satisfaction is our human animal fate, but this is not a project that is going to sell self-development books or make us feel any more at peace with our aspirations.

By Heart Life maps Living A Valued Life

By Hearting Brief Reflections on Maps by Miroslav Holub

I’m all for New Year’s resolutions.

Equally: new month’s resolutions, new week, new day, new hour.

It is eleven am on a Saturday morning. I have faffed around since nine. At eleven, I made a new-hour’s resolution to write this. I am now writing this.

There is satisfaction in allowing some of the energy of the resolution to unbuckle me from the loop-de-loop of faff, to solve that most fundamental of existential questions: “What to do, what to do, what to do? Or even better: what to do now?” [C14: from Latin resolvere to unfasten, reveal, from RE- + solver to loosen; see SOLVE]

What would Jesus do? I haven’t a clue. What would a better-version of myself do? That, I tormentingly know. It is this better, more organised, intelligent, seasoned version of myself who makes all the resolutions, leaving the me-as-I-am to have to carry out his “Fix Yourself” diktat.

I think Miroslav Holub’s Brief Reflection on Maps is a good rejoinder and explicator to those who go “why bother” (I am one of those why-botherers, by the way).

It is for those who go:

“It’s futile. What you promise yourself, what you resolve to do will necessarily unravel through the inertia of willpower.”

“Why do you need a ritualistic date on which to draw a line? A line which says: from hereon in, I’m doing it like this, not like that?”

“I’ve tried in the past. It didn’t work. I’m giving up on the trying’thing.”

What does the poem say to all this? For me, it says: we absolutely need maps. We need our plans, statements of intent, objectives, Holy Grails, and (New Year’s) resolutions.

And, here’s the rub, it really doesn’t matter if these maps for future action completely make sense, either as comparative benchmarks to what other people are doing (“Stop making sense, Steve!” – thank you Dave), or as definitive goals. What does matter is that these resolutions, these plans, and intentions we draw up for ourselves on a yearly, monthly, weekly, hourly, minute-by-minute basis plug into something deep and essential within us.

In Holub’s poem, the off beam map “works” because it is a Something-To-Do, a Hope Project. We need these when faced with the icy-waste(ful) anxiety of a Nothing-To-Do,  our Hopeless Projects. Being lost, awaiting our end.

Of course you don’t need to be lost and close to death in the Alps circa 1943 to have had that feeling, or to feel “reassured” when whatever  resolution it is gets made and off you go in what you hope, at least for now, to be the “right” direction.

Are you doing that? Are you looking for maps on which your deepest human needs and values are imprinted? Maybe you’re not entirely sure what those needs are. If so, here are some worksheets I sometimes use with my clients (and myself). You can treat these like psychological maps, if you like.


I’m not sure why it has taken me a number of months to learn this poem, but it has. Perhaps it has something to do with my none-too-stalwart diligence of late towards daily, even weekly by-hearting. The challenges of life take over, those very challenges which the learning of poetry attempts to address as well as offer respite. Before we know it we’ve stopped using that very thing which helps us weather the storm. It’s like that moment in the poem where it suddenly begins to snow:

At once
It began to snow, it snowed for two days and the party
Did not return. The lieutenant was in distress: he had sent
His men to their deaths.

Of course, this is what this poem is also very much about. What to do when we feel ourselves trapped in the directionless sprawl of  inner or outer “icy wastes”? We want the assurance that we’re moving in the right direction. We want some external or internal monitor giving us pointers and feedback. Like the experience of a treasure hunt at a children’s birthday party: “Cold, warm, warm, warmer, hot, YES!”  But what to do when the feedback feels  like this: “Cold, icy, gelid, Siberian”? It is at these moments, the moments of futility (“awaiting our end”) that we need maps.

Learning a poem is a map. First you remember one line, then the next. If you forget the line you’ve just learnt, go back and learn it again. Now stanza two. Turn left, go through the kissing gate across a paddock with sheep, over the hill until you reach a graveyard. Rest.

I am re-learning the poem on a walk. A very muddy walk. Mud too is an objective correlative for a type of “lostness”: a scuzzy, murky, sloppy kind of lost. The icy wastes have their painful, abstract immaculacy, whereas mud  is simply (also complicatedly, reconditely, muddied-ly) primordial distress. I want to be following the “right direction”, but sometimes I get lost, up to my ankles in mud.

At this point it is good to have the poem, and its ironizing commitment to “the right direction”.

We made a bivouac, waited for the snow to stop, and then with the map
Found the right direction.
And here we are.

What is right? Right usually means something definitively conjectured, as in befittingly right, out and out right, unerringly right, right as rain. But right is also a feeling, and feelings regarding our status in life are capricious forces, all too dependent on mutable, unpredictable externalities.

So perhaps more important than the “right direction” is just a direction assiduously followed? For me that means coming back to my daily by-hearting of poems. I’m not necessarily setting this activity up as the “right direction” but it is a direction which has a feeling of rightness (also ripeness) to it.  For in the learning of the poem, we open up different, often new directions in the mind which can help to give us a feeling of space. Not icy wasted space, or gloopy, muddy turmoil. More like small blocks of stepping-stone text on a page. We call this use of space poetry.