Most people, almost all normal ones, live their lives by the stories they tell about themselves and those others tell about them. As psychologist Gerald Corey says, “These stories actually shape reality in that they construct and constitute what we see, feel, and do.”
Your personality is not a static entity which took shape at your birth once and for all. As you grew up physically, you encountered a lot of other people, situations, and forces that contributed into the ongoing shaping of your personality even if you didn’t want all that shaping. Your life is a story that continues to be written till your death. You are the ultimate writer of your own story though a whole lot of others make significant contributions which you can’t ignore. Every Othello has to meet his Iago. But the plot need not necessitate the murder of Desdemona. Every Hamlet has to deal with the demons of fraudulence. Mark Antony has a choice to not “let Rome in Tiber melt” and thus rewrite his story.
Your life is a story that unfolds as you go on your way to your grave. Other people add colours and thrills to the plot. They determine the plot to a great extent too. It is like a game of cards, if I may borrow the analogy from Jawaharlal Nehru. The hand you are dealt is your fate; the way you play is your choice, your skill, and your responsibility. Your story depends only partly on you.
You have to play your part; there’s no escape from that. Literature helps you to see how others do that. The flaw in Othello’s character, his refusal or inability to see beyond what Iago egged on him to see, will teach you vital lessons in the game of life. Every character in good literature can teach you such lessons. The skills required to play your cards can be learnt from literature better than anywhere else.
Literature reveals life’s inevitable struggles and subsequent conquests or losses. It places before us life’s agonies and ecstasies. How do other people play their destined cards? What could they do to make their games better? We learn the strategies of life from their stories which literature brings to us.
When you are faced with a serious problem of life, it is always worthwhile to imagine a story around that problem. Create a character similar to you and give him/her that problem. This helps to externalise the problem and see it from a different angle. Your perspectives widen and you begin to understand the problem, its causes, and possible solutions more clearly. The stories you’ve read may help in the process.
Literature helps add meaning to life at least in two ways: other people stories can inspire you, and you can create your own narratives which will help you understand yourself better.
This post is the 5th in a series on Meaning of Life.
The 1st was: What is the meaning of life?
2nd: Religion and Meaning
3rd: Career and Meaning
4th: Science and Meaning