New book explores the way we construct personal narratives to give our lives meaning

EisenbergTHEPOINTISLeeOn the shelves today The Point Is, is a book that explores the way we build personal narratives to give purpose and meaning to our lives. The author, Lee Eisenberg, is the former editor-in-chief for Esquire Magazine, has worked as a consulting editor for Time magazine, and is the author of several books.

CMU Public Radio’s Ben Thorp sat down with Eisenberg to talk to him about his new book.

Ben: My sense is you put it in the context of it’s about telling a story and finding a story that you find meaningful. I’m wondering what the advantage is of framing our lives in terms of narrative?

Lee: Well I don’t think we have a choice. That’s one of the extraordinary things I learned researching this book. When we’re about three years old a few things happen and they happen simultaneously. We begin to capture memories some of which will endure and as we get older we collect and remember many more memories.

The second thing that happens and it happens almost simultaneously is we gain the ability to both create and understand stories. It’s around that time when we’re about three, or four, or five that we start, and I’m going to use quotes here, we start writing a story of our life inside our heads. I don’t mean putting it down on a piece of paper we start creating the story of you, Ben, or me, Lee, or anybody else out there. And we add on to that as we get older. What’s interesting about that is I think a lot of us judge our life to be meaningful, happy, satisfied, or purposeful, or whatever on the basis of how that story is written. So I think the contribution of this book is to get people to think more about is that story really accurate? Am I being fair to myself? Was that such a low chapter, or a high chapter? How do I perhaps look at that life story that I preserve inside in a somewhat different way and in a way that makes me see more purposefulness about my life.

Ben: So I love this idea of changing the way that we think about our life story. One of my questions for you is is there a danger when we become so set in the life story that we’re telling of not being aware of other possibilities in our lives?

Lee: Absolutely, you put your finger right on it. One of the things that I talk about in the book is there are certain cognitive psychologists that basically say what we do with that story is we create what they call a personal myth. You make a character, a leading character, in your story, his name is Ben Thorp, and if I were to ask you what defines that character, what is he like, you would have a pretty good description. He’s a confident, good looking guy but he’s got these fears about x, y, and z.EisenbergTHEPOINTIS (HC)

The way we get locked into that self definition very much determines whether we’re feeling good about our life or whether our life is meaningful.

And if you say, you know what, there’s a side to that character Ben Thorp that really isn’t prominent in that story I tell about myself, maybe I should think about him in a somewhat different way. In so doing I think you’d begin to look at your life through a different prism than if you always accepted the Ben Thorp character that has always been easy for you to grab and focus on.

I like to tell the story when I was leaving college I didn’t have a clue of what I wanted to do with myself. I thought of myself as a tragic failure, I almost didn’t want to think of myself as a success, I liked the romance of being this guy who could write the great american novel but I’ll probably end up drinking myself to death writing jingles on Madison Avenue. That was my self assigned character.

And then something happened, totally flukey, I managed to get a job that turned into a totally fascinating career. I became the editor of a magazine, and it was a fluke! But I had to redefine that leading character. He was no longer someone who was going to drink himself to death. He was a lucky guy.

That might be an extreme example but I think it illustrates what you asked which is are we sometimes not interpreting ourselves, the leading character in our own story, in the right way?

Ben: I’ve been talking to Lee Eisenberg, author of the new book The Point Is, making sense of birth, death, and everything in between. Thank you Lee.

Lee: My pleasure Ben.