Last summer, and over the months that followed as I finished a rather substantial book by Professor Randy David, I was introduced to the idea of life as a narrative. I’m pretty sure it’s an idea that would stick with me for many years to come. And it’s bound to come up especially during times like this, on the eve of the new year, when the sociable thing to do is to reminisce and tweet about one’s favorite moments from the past year. (The more contemplative ones like to blog the products of their ruminations as well.)
Here’s one way to think about everything that has happened to you in the past year: they were either things that you planned, or they were the things that you didn’t plan. Thanks to the things that you didn’t plan, you can tell a story of the past year that’s more exciting than if everything turned out well. For example, if you’re a student like me, tonight you can tell the story of how you planned to get your grades up, but then you got caught up in the activities of some charitable cause-oriented organization so much that your grades suffered, but it’s alright because you found that work fulfilling and there you learned things you will never learn inside the classroom. Compare that to if things turned out well: you planned to get your grades up, and, well, they shot up. End of story; you need not provide further details because no one will listen to such arrogance.
The point is that, according to the school of thought related in Professor David’s writings, life is mostly random, and one chooses to make a story out of it as one pleases. You can choose what shape your life will take as much as the world inevitably pushes your life into random but certain directions. It’s a tug of war between your will and circumstance.
It’s not unlike history. From the thousands of ancient and delicate pages of primary historical records, a few individuals tasked by the government to forward the cause of nation building carefully chose certain events and distilled them into readable stories for children such that for the young minds, the rise of a distinct national identity was inevitable. It would seem, even, to be the natural course of things. Now, millions of people, or maybe billions, have lived in this archipelago throughout the past few centuries. That’s millions, or billions, of individual lives, perhaps tied to the society and culture of their time, but still individual. It would only be foolish to think that all the events of all those lifetimes have been summarized concisely in the books we read in history class, and that no other contradicting interpretation is valid. History can only be as good and as complete as its writers can make it.
And if you think about it, our own, personal lives are no different. You may choose to look back at the past year and think of it in terms of the best memories, if you’re one of those who live for the great moments. Or you may want to think about the past year in terms of what you’ve been occupied with. Again, if you’re a student, you’d then divide the past year into the semesters and make such statements as, “Hey, my first semester was great, unlike that terrible summer term.” No matter which lenses you use to look back, however, you will have leave out a few things. In the story of your past year, there will always be days that are blank, days that didn’t matter in the overall plot. That day in the first semester when the lights went out and you couldn’t check Facebook and you just stared blankly all day is irrelevant; it still was a great semester.
But one good thing about our frail human memory is that it’s conveniently impermanent when we want to start over. When hopes are high, when the spirit of change is strong, we can, and we will, weave the new stories of our lives. The counting of the years may be arbitrary, but it gives us landmarks against which we can anchor our hopes. If the last year was bad for you, think again. Think hard, and try to remember those small things you may have buried in your haste to call the year a bad one. Consider those memories, and don’t forget them as we enter a new year—and another chance to write better chapters in our lives.