One Chapter at a Time

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(Reading time: 7 minutes)

A life unfolds in weeks, days, seconds, even infinitesimal moments. But it's made sense of and recalled in chapters. And chapters span years.

For my own life, I could narrate its history with fewer chapters than I have fingers. Each chapter begins with a momentous decision or incident, one that shakes my foundations of meaning, splinters my worldview, and kills off habits and births new activities—or new reasons for engaging them.

A move to a new city or town, the unanticipated death of someone dear, falling in and out of love, a psychedelic trip, something fortuitous, a physical birth or spiritual rebirth, a good book, a fecund idea, achieving that raison d'être—these are a few examples of what has power to bring on a new chapter and thus end a preceding one.

But nothing has power to define a life chapter like the Chase. The Chase necessarily involves hunting something and coming up short, or achieving the thing hunted and realizing it isn't what you imagined it would be. We seek love, freedom, success, safety, peace, truth—and find the world unyielding. In the Chase we undergo change. This process of change entails a story.

If this, then that goes the story formula. If I fall in X, then Y and Z. If I achieve A, then B and C. If I avoid or overcome alpha, then omega. We impose narratives upon the world and these inform our way of being. Then when life breaks open our narratives, as it tends to do, exposing sundry errors in belief and thinking, we either up our cognitive dissonance or we write the closing of a chapter, chalk it up as lessons learned, and begin writing a new story with assumed wisdom but, still, real ignorance.

What's more, how we interpret the discrepancy between the imagined and real result from every Chase is a story we tell ourselves. Thus we anticipate the future and understand the past fictively.

Our lives, in other words, are defined by the stories we tell ourselves—set off by the ideals we Chase—and the stories we tell ourselves often shift.

I'm experiencing such a shift now. Since 2011 I have found meaning in trying to master the art of writing (as if!) and in trying to creatively express with words and photographs insights I gained when my previous chapter came to a close. What was I Chasing in the previous chapter? Success, whatever "success" is. When I woke up to my folly, I thought I'd write a memoir about it.

Yet the pursuit of success, that damnable abstract, persists.

Success in my previous chapter looked like money, excess, walking the line and chasing the dragon, whereas in this chapter it has resembled education, art, "follow your passion" and chasing the dream. I abandoned one form an ideal for another version of it. If I could master the threading of thoughts and weaving of words, I imagined at the onset of this chapter, I could render insights from the previous chapter into a lapidary and lurid presentation that would make mouths gape.

But what should making mouths gape offer me?

Fame, maybe. Validation. Meaning. Success. It's difficult to know. It's one of those intangibles that informs my Chase. Psychoanalytic theory suggests our motives are always hidden and invariably infantile. We at bottom want little more than confirmation, love, to matter. We want to be cradled against our mother's lactating tit, forever. But the world, like wind from the north, is cold. Even creative mastery, never mind recognition for it or making a difference with it, is not so temperate as to prevent the story from shifting.

For the record, I've considered my creative work up to now practice for actually writing the memoir I once intended to. I needed the last six years to develop my skills. But now that I finally feel remotely capable of writing the story, I'm no longer motivated to do so.

I'm no longer motivated because my narrative is shifting. Through various small successes and other experiences I've come to see art differently than I once did. The chapter entitled If You Follow Your Bliss, Then You'll Be Perma-Happy, or If You Make Art, Then You'll Find Meaning, or If You Purge Your Innards, Then You'll Know Truth is coming to a close and proving to be non-true. I've nothing to Chase.

Consequently, I'm in between chapters, on a blank and uncategorized page. I'm in a sort of narrative identity limbo.[1]

This isn't bad, though. Since I'm no longer chasing the dangling carrot or pot of gold, I've an abundance of time for reading.

I recently finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and wouldn't you know the themes explored therein relate to processes I'm undergoing and exploring?

What remains of life when a person rejects what he previously considered his mission?

Milan Kundera, author of Unbearable Lightness, poses this question. His protagonist, Tomas, at one point abandons his career as an enviable and committed surgeon to take up window washing, if only to see what lies behind "mission" and "purpose."

Such a life-altering choice is made possible by life's unbearable lightness. Living and all that it entails, after all, isn't necessary. A person can reinvent himself on a whim; every chosen path can be unchosen in an instant; the Chases that give us a sense of meaning and purpose can at will be abandoned. We are grounded only in ascribing to our lives essentiality, whether that be in the form of the roles we play, the hobbies we have, the things we do or make, the people we love, or the beliefs and ideologies we hold tight.

In truth, we are free, light.

This unencumbered freedom, this lightness of being, is unbearable, I suppose, because if one can reinvent himself in an instant, abandon his Chase, adopt a reality-altering narrative, then what purpose or meaning does he have? If nothing is essential, then who is he?

A weighty consideration, indeed.

For all the tumult the condition can incur, I'm okay with being in narrative identity limbo, with being free of a Chase. I've tried to foster over the years a negative capability.[2] I also partially think I've explored the lives of vagabonds, dissenters, and outsiders in hopes of gleaning the experience of utter self-reinvention. I've always wanted to forsake my life-path so completely as to get vertigo, not because I so dislike my current path but because I want to experience such unbearable lightness. I want to feel the ground vanish beneath my feet. I've experienced such in moderate doses, having shifted course before, as I've mentioned, but I want to overdose. I want to live a thousand lives and discard each with reckless abandon. I'm not so attached to my stories as to cling to them for the entirety of my life.

At least, that's the story I tell myself. But maybe I'm preoccupied with the possibility of reinvention because I lack the courage to dive into what I would were I not anchored[3] by the stories I'm clinging to.

But as for the story of becoming a writer or even of writing a literary memoir and causing mouths to gape, I'm over it. I'm not over writing per se, just my motives that once underlay it. Now I must find new reasons to continue, a new story.

That said, I now face a new challenge because the story I'm in, which serves as a kind of Truth (as all meaning-making stories do), goes something like this:

  1. There is no meaning in life, but the Chase gives you a sense of meaning.
  2. You can never know what you're Chasing because the target is imaginary, fabricated in hope.
  3. You can never know why you Chase, for our drives are invariably unconscious and puerile.
  4. If and when you catch what you're Chasing, you must find something new to Chase. You remain, until you do, in narrative identity limbo, void of meaning.

So, where can the story go when one gives up the Chase? Who is the person without a story? And can one ever again be motivated to Chase when he knows, or believes, that every Chase is vain (egoistic and futile)?

Such questions have been swirling and resurfacing in my consciousness for the past several years. Doubts over writing a memoir and writing generally have been omnipresent. But I also have this story I tell myself about doubt: go deep into it, for treasures lie there. So I've stalled abandoning my mission until I felt sure about doing so.

I'm still unsure.

Maybe this chapter I'd thought was over remains to be concluded yet.

  1. The theory of narrative identity postulates that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life. (Wikipedia)
  2. Negative capability is the ability of "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason," as first coined by W.B. Yeats.
  3. An anchor can be an enslaving ball and chain or a securing moor. The stories we tell ourselves are often simultaneously both.