Autobiography and self-awareness
Psychologist Daniel McAdams has written extensively on the emergence of a sense of self, which is one's
identity, as the result of a developmental process. He sees this sense of self rooted in the emergence of a personal narrative.
This narrative or personal myth he describes as an act of imagination that int egrates of our remembered past, perceived present,
and anticipated future. He describes this narrative as a personal myth because it is not only a means of discovering some
truth about ourselves, rather it is the means through which we make ourselves. In putting together our life narrative we define
who we are. This is a process that takes the better part of a lifetime and different stages in the lifecycle offer us opportunities
to refine and develop the story.
We can relate this to the earlier discussion of the true and false “self”. In a sense,
the false self is a personal narrative that is without integrity; lacking both meaning and a sense of value. McAdams argues
that to find integrity in life (true self) is to look back on one's personal narrative/myth and determine that, for all its
faults, it is good. A significant element in finding value in our life story is the presence of an orientation toward others
and concern for those who come after us. He describes the grace of old age as experiencing the integrity of one’s life
story. To reach old age and reject the gift of one’s life story as unworthy is despair.
When we first turned to the topic of self-awareness we discussed the importance of remembering where
one came from; remembering one’s personal history. This becomes obvious as we turn to the role of the personal narrative
in giving substance to one’s identity. Where we came from is part of our story and is integral with the person who we
are today. Yesterdays challenges, successes, loves, joys, failures, losses and dreams brought us to the point in the road
at which we find ourselves today. To re- member our past is to integrate it into our today. It brings healing where we have
forgotten or repressed a past experience, resulting in dis-integration. It brings insight when we can explore life experiences
to discover patterns previously overlooked which bring greater integrity to our life story. Remembering the past, even those
painful elements that have left us wounded is a means of healing the wounds.
Father Joseph Allen (Allen, The Inner Way…, 26-27) states that part of the process of
spiritual growth is the development of greater self-discernment. This includes being able to perceive and acknowledge negative
motivations and perceptions. A multitude of devices and masks are used by us in hiding these phenomena; denial, avoidance,
blaming others, compensation, projection and so on. In every case the goal is to avoid seeing any evil intent in his or her
actions. Spiritual growth requires that we bring these traits to light and deal with them. Viewing these traits close up,
it is easy to miss them. However, when we examine our life story we have a broader perspective and can discern patterns of
denial, projection and avoidance that would have been missed otherwise.
In addition to the psychological and spiritual benefits of examining our life story, autobiography
as a spiritual discipline is a well established Christian tradition, as was noted earlier. We can go back to Augustine for
an early and luminous example of this tradition and come forward through St. Teresa of Avila, John Henry Cardinal Newman, St. Therese of Lisieux,
Thomas Merton, Venerable Pope John the XXIII, Pope John Paul II and on to dozens of books by contemporary authors trying to
make sense of their lives.
Leaving aside theology and psychology, the concern at this point is how do I go about examining my
life story? It is easy to get overwhelmed and bogged down if we attempt to do too much too soon.
A good way to begin, as suggested by McAdams, is to develop the table of contents for our autobiography.
Our life story
can be organized in terms of chapters. One chapter can be distinguished from another in terms is significant shifts in our
identity. Many people would see marriage as a new chapter from
that of single adulthood. Retirement is a transition point for many from a chapter focused on a work shaped identity to whatever
Thomas Merton sees major transition points in his life when he went from public school
into Cambridge, then later when he left Cambridge
for America. Obviously, entering the monastery
was a major transition point. Tony Hendra’s autobiography, which I have referred to several times in these pages, identifies
major turning points as the time that he first met Fr. Joe and later when he attended a comedy performance at Cambridge that
opened him to the power of comedy and satire.
Once the chapter divisions are in place, try identifying the major characters in your story. Take some
time to describe these people in terms of a brief character portrait. What are these people like? Describe their personality.
How did they come into your life? What impact did these people have on your life?
The next step is to flesh out each chapter with the major developments associated with that phase of
your life. This can be done by identifying key events associated with the chapter and describing them. A key events can be
a peak experience, a low experience, or a turning point. Memories that stay with you over the years are likely to have been
important to you. So it is good to write down your earliest memory. Report important childhood, adolescent and adult memories.
Since this is being done as a spiritual exercise be sure to include memories of events that have been important to your spiritual
development. This does not need to be a listing of memories from First Communion, Confirmation and your wedding. Rather, think of those events that have
significantly shaped your ability to be a loving person of service.
For example, a favorite childhood memory of mine is accompanying my father to the local orphanage on
Friday evenings to show movies to the kids and distribute ice cream. Key adolescent memories relate to my “loss of faith”
in college and the struggles to realize a more mature faith in Christ. For example, a nadir experience was when I was in my
mid-twenties and in Peace Corps. I was on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I was suffering from culture shock and feeling abandoned by God. One day I stopped at a local café for lunch and got a pleasant
conversation going with a man about ten years my senior who was on his way to an even more remote island to teach school for
a year. It happened that my new friend was a Jesuit who was experiencing his own crisis of faith. We talked for the next 13
hours non-stop ministering to each other’s spiritual needs by simply listening to one another. It helped me to realize
that I wasn’t abandoned by God, as God had touched my life and helped heal my pain through the “accident”
of my conversation that day.
The next activity moves us away from the past and looks to the future. What dreams to you have for
the future? What are your goals? How do you get there from here? Are there any significant tensions or problems in your life
that need to be resolved? How will they be resolved?
Consider the plot line of your life story. What is the next logical development in that story, based
on the plot line continuing on in a similar direction. Can you see the hand of God at work in your life, now that you are
taking a broad view? How has your life contributed to the benefit of future generations? What would you still like to contribute?
Having done the above, consider what the overall theme of your life seems to be and try writing it down
in fifty words or less. Consider the major lessons that you have learned from life so far?