Self as a Story: Plot, Temporality, Closure from an Ethical Point of View - Narrative Ethics

Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016

Self as a Story: Plot, Temporality, Closure from an Ethical Point of View
Narrative Ethics

McAdams”s take on ethics is most clearly revealed in his model of the redemptive self. As has been noted earlier, McAdams (2006) contends that it is a story of redemption that encompasses the lives of a substantial proportion of Americans at present. In doing so, McAdams pays significant attention to the moral and ethical aspects of the redemption narrative and draws on multiple sources to articulate his view. Among a variety of influences, ranging from popular culture and mass media to literary and historical sources, McAdams privileges the Biblical myth in particular, finding in it a ground to present Americans as a new chosen people. McAdams further positions this special intuitive understanding of role and purpose in life, shared on a national and individual level, as the source of striving to overcome, to be delivered and to be redeemed.

Referring to William James”s treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience, McAdams argues that redemption can be found in all of the world”s major religions and many cultural traditions, and defines it in a most general sense “as a deliverance from suffering to a better world. Religious conceptions of redemption imagine it as a divine intervention or sacred process, and the better world may mean heaven, a state of grace, or some other transcendent status” (McAdams 2006: 7). McAdams finds a “legion” of founding examples of stories that encode the sequence of early suffering followed by (promised or actual) deliverance to a better state in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. However, it is the first tradition that is particularly prominent in McAdams”s argument, the tradition that includes the following powerful redemption sequences: “Abraham and Sarah suffer infertility into old age until God sends them Isaac, their son; the Israelites suffer through Egyptian captivity and 40 years of wandering until God delivers them to the Promised Land; Christ is crucified but raised up on the third day” (McAdams 2006: 19). McAdams traces a direct line from these Christian myths to contemporary American culture and the form of subjectivity it enshrines through such foundational instances of American history as the arrival of the Puritans on American soil and the establishing of the first communities, slavery and its abolition, and the adoption of the American constitution.

In the chapter entitled “Redemption and the American Soul” he writes: “By the time the first Puritan settlers set sail for the Massachusetts Bay in 1630, they already knew that America would be a land of redemption. On board the flagship Arabella, Governor John Winthrop urged his fellow colonists to bind themselves together into a loving community so that they might do God”s redeeming work” (McAdams 2006: 24). Persecuted for their reformist beliefs in England, the Puritans perceived their journey as the journey to the New World, where they could escape their persecutors as the Israelites had escaped the Egyptians and found their Promised Land. In McAdams”s summary, they felt like the whole Old World was watching as they embarked on their mission of utmost spiritual as well as political significance—“their city on the hill would serve as a model for all of Christendom […] of a redemptive community made up of redemptive souls and working together to redeem the world” (McAdams 2006: 24).

Moreover, for McAdams the idea of redemption is inextricably connected to the notion of chosenness. As he suggests, the Puritans again established the historical precedent for this. Not only did they bring the idea of redemption that powerfully shaped the common psyche of Americans, they also grounded it in the feeling of exclusivity, the notion that they are, like the Israelites before them, the chosen people, with a special mission in the world. To confirm this, McAdams insists on the parallels between the Biblical account and the Puritans” myth: “a model for both collective and individual identity for the Massachusetts Bay settlers, the Puritan myth blended sacred narratives from Jewish and Christian traditions” (McAdams 2006: 103). McAdams further traces how the same idea became part of the founding narrative for the new republic. The hard-earned victory over the British was perceived as proof of God”s blessing on the new American republic. The new nation felt itself to be a light to the Old World, an inspiring model for democracy and freedom.

Although McAdams acknowledges that in the twentieth century Americans became increasingly ambivalent about their self-proclaimed status as the chosen people, “milder and more inclusive rhetoric of this kind still has the power to draw us in” (McAdams 2006: 105). What is more important for McAdams”s genealogy is that Americans” sense of themselves as being the chosen people corresponds in important ways to the traditional American belief in individualism. Accordingly, McAdams concludes:

Americans have typically understood their destiny on two parallel levels, both of which may be traced back to the Puritan myth. On the collective level, we are part of a great enterprise, a people chosen for an exalted destiny, but on the individual level, each person is chosen too — called to a unique and special endeavor in life, gifted with an inner specialness that distinguishes him or her from every other person who has ever lived: I am chosen. (McAdams 2006: 109)

It is this feeling of exclusivity that is positioned at the beginning of the redemptive sequence by McAdams. This is the essential, “given” resource that allows the self to construe obstacles and misfortunes as tests, and grounds the conviction that they can be overcome and turned into good.

McAdams acknowledges that some aspects of his redemptive self model might have limitations: “For all its psychological and moral appeal, the redemptive self may reflect important shortcomings and blind spots in Americans” understandings of themselves and the world” (McAdams 2006: 25). The model raises moral and ethical issues that are not easy for the author to negotiate.

The implications of McAdams”s model for ethics, in particular his emphasis on the chosen people, can be challenged from a range of positions, such as poststructural and post-colonial critique as well as contemporary political philosophy. The exclusive category of chosen people conferred on the Americans by the redemptive self model appears to be deeply problematic in the light of the contemporary debates in continental philosophy. As influential political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998) argues, the logic of exclusion/inclusion sets in motion dangerous dynamics not only in philosophy but also in politics and social developments, as has been amply demonstrated by the catastrophes of the twentieth century.

McAdams”s emphasis on the exclusivity of American identity can be juxtaposed with the post-colonial valorization of alterity, fragmentation, diversity and hybridity. Along these lines Gerald Prince (2005) argues for a post-colonial narratology that “is sensitive to matters commonly, if not uncontroversially, associated with the postcolonial (e.g., hybridity, migrancy, otherness, fragmentation, diversity, power relations); it envisages their possible narratological correspondents; and it incorporates them” (Prince 2005: 373). Along similar lines Marion Gymnich (2002) urges researchers to investigate how narrative texts construct, perpetuate or subvert concepts of identity and alterity or categories such as ethnicity, race, class and gender.

While McAdams tries to acknowledge in his historical analysis of the idea of redemption the role that this idea played for African-American slaves, he ignores the potentially irreconcilable differences in meanings for the white settlers and colonizers on the one hand and slaves on the other (while failing even to mention the possible resonance of that discourse for another major stream within the entity known as “American people”—namely, Native Americans). The narrative of redemption is presented by McAdams as such a powerful narrative for modern America precisely because in his view it seamlessly sutures the core conception of the “good” in various ethnic and social groups.

However, what appears at first sight to be an overgeneralization, from an ethical point of view represents the consequences of a particular treatment of the Other. It is the Other that should become exactly like the self in order to be considered as human, as equal, as partner. The white settler and the black slaves share the narrative of redemption—thus, by virtue of this shared belief they become equal; Native Americans, whose narrative can be encompassed by very different notions, are excluded from this discussion. Positioning the redemption story as the all-embracing myth of modern-day America runs a risk of eradicating the difference and reducing the Other to the self—a move which is, according to Levinas, both ethically and politically problematic.

McAdams”s theorizing of the issue of generativity sheds further light on the role of the Other in the ethical system encompassed by the narrative of redemption. The dialectic of chosenness and generativity in McAdams”s model addresses and reflects “the universal tension” between individual self-expression and human belonging (McAdams 2006: 9). The blessing of some finds its counterpart in the suffering and disadvantage of other people. For McAdams, this stark contrast “sets up a moral challenge: Because I (the main character in the story) am advantaged in some way, I have the opportunity, or responsibility, to help improve the lives of those who might not be so blessed. I may even feel that I am called to do this, that it is my special fate or personal destiny to be of service to others” (McAdams 2006: 8). This call reaches its full fruition during the generative stage of life, proposed initially by Erikson in the model of adult development that McAdams followed. Generativity is the central psychological and moral challenge that adults face, especially in their thirties, forties and fifties. Adults who score highly on generativity—those who were blessed with the feeling of chosenness early in their life and successfully met the challenge of reconciling their strong need for power and independence with an equally strong need for love and community—will engage in promoting the well-being of future generations and leave a positive legacy of the self at this stage. The self, therefore, can engage in “giving back” to others only after it has succeeded in “looking after him/herself”. As such, “my” well-being always goes first; therefore, I need to become efficient in dealing with various life challenges before I can help others. In fact, my ability to help rests on this prior elaborated ability to take care of myself. The highly instrumental, pragmatic character of the self understood in such a way thus becomes obvious.

There are, however, other scenarios—scenarios in which redemption fails, and life takes the form of contaminated plots and vicious circles. According to McAdams”s observations, this will typically happen to those who did not experience the feeling of chosenness early in their lives. Consequently, they become less able to construct their life along the lines of the redemptive narrative, suffer various defeats, develop psychological problems and become less generative. It is hard not to notice that the language and concepts utilized by McAdams to describe this dynamic become increasingly value-laden, judgemental and moralizing.

In order to assess the status of McAdams”s position on ethics, it is worth considering the broader context of his theorizing. As has been noted before, McAdams”s model of identity formation is rooted in Erik Erikson”s theory of psychosocial development, which explicitly identifies virtues that are to be developed at each stage of life: hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, wisdom. Erikson”s model has recently generated renewed attention in the context of the emergence in the late 1990s of positive psychology—a field in psychology that strives to refocus the attention of scholars from their traditional engagement with negative symptoms and adverse circumstances of psychological functioning, onto the positive aspects of psychology.

The domain of positive psychology encompasses three levels: at the subjective level, it addresses positive experiences such as well-being, optimism and flow. At the individual level, it engages with character strengths—the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness, and high talent. At the group level it interrogates the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals towards better citizenship: responsibility, parenting, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethics. The key advocates of positive psychology, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000: 5), maintain that “the social and behavioral sciences […] can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound while being understandable and attractive. They can show what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, and to thriving communities”. McAdams and his colleagues have strongly supported this move and, in their contribution to The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology, argued for closer collaboration between their programme of research and positive psychology (McAdams et al. 2009).

However, the ethical position of positive psychology is not unproble-matic, as Mike Martin (2007) has demonstrated in his critical analysis. Martin points out that there is an internal contradiction at the core of the movement: while positive psychologists claim value neutrality, they seem to endorse normative ethics. Martin argues that positive psychology engages in the activity of normative ethics to the extent that it shares a eudemonic concept of ethics, which identifies the state of happiness with the acquisition of virtue. By endorsing a eudemonic conception of ethics, positive psychology can no longer consider itself merely a descriptive and predictive science, but should acknowledge that it is also engaged in the activity of prescriptive valuation.

Such criticism can be extended to McAdams”s model. Indeed, addressing the issue of narrative identity and eudemonic well-being, Bauer, McAdams and Pals express the view that complex narrative identity is closely tied to the subjective interpretation of oneself as happy. This view is based on the adoption of a eudemonic view of well-being that, in addition to the sense of having pleasure and meaning in one”s life as measured by self-reported well-being, also includes higher degrees of psychosocial integration in that meaning is measured as ego-development. These higher degrees of psychosocial integration correspond to the complex narrative identity encompassed in the notion of personal growth, a tendency to frame difficult life events as transformative, and the adoption of the narrative of redemption in describing the move from suffering to an enhanced state of being (Bauer et al. 2006).

Thus, McAdams”s model of identity as life story relies on an ethical system formulated in terms of substantive moral principles, identified in terms of their distinctively moral content, concrete values and virtue as duty. McAdams”s implied ethical system reinstates as normative a number of foundational principles and virtues originating in Christianity and widely referenced in literature and mass culture. The idea that the road to salvation goes through suffering, the concept of individual calling, and the underlying notion of strong moral convictions put to the test through life can be read as an attempt to rework a Protestant ethic for the twenty-first century.