Life is a Novel
So far, I am lucky to have had four decades bouncing around with all the other souls on this planet, and when I look back, I sometimes feel like I have lived a dozen or so mini lives, with stages so vastly different and defined that they could be chapters in a very weird but strangely compelling novel. This is a universal thing. Our lives can be divided into definite parts: high school, parenthood, university days for example; or maybe the time spent at one workplace or home. Sometimes a life changing event, good or otherwise can begin or end a chapter. Philosophers, scholars and psychologists over the centuries have been fascinated by life’s stages, and how much of these we have in common and what the stages mean for our growth and development as individuals. Psychologist Daniel J. Levinson spent two decades researching the cycles of life, and chronicled his theory in his book ‘The Seasons of Life’, in which he divided life into four stages of Childhood and Adolescence ( age 0-22 – making choices about life), early Adulthood (age 17-45 -concrete decisions around careers, values and friendship, settling down, routine and progress) middle Adulthood (age 40-65 ,evaluation of life, life changes, a likely crisis or pivot)and late Adulthood ( age 60 onwards, a time for reflection and focus upon legacy). American Psychologist George Vaillant took a different stance and after studying some 800 people, devised six tasks that need to be completed, not necessarily in sequence, in order for us to have a full and meaningful life. These included developing identity, a capacity for intimacy and for passing on of traditions. Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung thought there were four stages: The Athlete, The Warrior, The Statement and The Spirit. But why does all this even matter? As humans, we find comfort in patterns and creating a sense of order in the chaos of life, which is why we have this slight obsession with finding a kind of blueprint for how our lives can play out, and what it means to live a life of growth and purpose. More than that though, it is important we live our lives on purpose, rather than sleep walking through it without noticing the shifts and learning from those patterns.
Whether you follow Aristotle and believe ‘Art imitates Life’, or the fabulously clever Oscar Wilde who believed the opposite and said, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates Life’, for me the correlation between the two is undeniable. When I look for patterns in the stages of life, I can’t help but go back to the idea of the elements of a story, with the chapters, structure, cliff hangers and all the characters of a well written novel. We can be the lead in our own story, but we may be the love interest, hero or villain in someone else’s. Characters in our stories (friends, lovers, family, bosses, colleagues) can come and go throughout the pages of our own lives. A better analogy may not be that life is one whole novel, but a succession of short stories, all captivating and unique to each of us, telling the tale of the stages of our lives as we fiercely live them.
American writer Dan Harman created his Story Circle idea, a kind of distilled- down version of Joseph Campbells 12 stage Heroes journey, designed as a universal story structure to aid writing, but which mirrors the stages of life researched by those like Jung and Levinson. Basically, the Story Circle has eight stages in which the main character (the Protagonist) begins in a zone of comfort, desires something else, which leads to an unfamiliar situation, they adapt to the change in that situation, get what they wanted but pay a high price for that, and then return to a familiar situation having changed and grown. Life has that kind of circular quality to it. Even now, I have a sense of returning to the things that brought me joy when I was younger: the ocean, music, art; a desire for horizons, space and stillness. We all come back to where we began eventually, either literally or figuratively, but older and wiser, and hopefully with a truly remarkable story to tell.