Signs of Life content is created in partnership with American Awakening.
There is no shortage of anxious questions facing us as a nation right now. We’re worried about huge, systemic issues like the economy and the all-important call to collectively “flatten of the curve”, and we’re worried about our own individual jobs and bank accounts, and the health of our family and friends.
But maybe the most troubling question for many of us is “when will this be over, and what will our life be like on the other side?” Most of us know, deep down, that a pandemic this consequential will not leave anyone in America unchanged. Our national identity is being reshaped by this crisis, and we are right to wonder what, exactly, the new form will be.
Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has dedicated decades to studying the effect of personal narratives — the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. In particular, his work focuses on the power of what he calls “redemption stories” that make up the “quintessentially American story about how to live a good life.” McAdams writes that such stories almost always contain five themes:
- “Early advantage” or becoming aware of our unique gifts
- “Sensitivity to suffering” or noticing the pain, suffering, and injustice in the world
- “Moral steadfastness” or determining to live according to a firm sense of right and wrong
- “Redemption sequences” or making significant mistakes or suffering hardships and finding a way to turn them into an “enhanced state”
- “Prosocial goals” or using what we’ve learned from our own adversity to improve the lives of others.
To explore the possible significance of a personal redemption story, McAdams and his colleague Jen Guo interviewed 157 middle-aged adults for two to three hours, asking each to describe his or her life as if it were a novel with chapters, characters and themes.
When McAdams and Guo studied their interviewees’ stories, they found that those who had redemptive personal narratives also lived lives of what McAdams calls “generativity,” which is characterized by generosity, selflessness and a desire to make the world a better place not just for themselves but for all others too.
That’s not all. In his previous work, McAdams has shown that generativity is directly tied to things like better parenting, better community engagement, better mental health and even lower incidences of depression.
Does this mean that if we see our stories as redemptive or that the arc of the moral universe, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “bends toward justice,” we will suffer through less adversity than others? Will we, in some way, not feel the full brunt of pain, anger and disappointment?
Not at all.
What it does mean is that when we see our lives as a redemptive arc, we are better prepared to accept that adversity is part of life. And we’re more prone to do all we can to ensure adversity becomes a lesson — or even a positive, life-changing event.
In their concise survey of the culture and civilization on humanity, The Lessons of History the Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom winners Will and Ariel Durant remind us: “If we ask what determines whether a challenge will or will not be met, the answer is that this depends upon the presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will, capable of effective responses to new stimulations… In any case, a challenge successfully met (as by the United States in 1917, 1933, and 1941), raises the temper and level of a nation, and makes it abler to meet further challenges.”
How I think about and respond to adversity affects you. And how you think about and respond to adversity affects me. While I don’t intend for that message to be as didactic as that might sound, I think it’s important enough to note that when you or I navigate something difficult with authenticity and hope, it can have a positive impact on more than just our individual lives. Your redemption story can change how I view my story. My redemption story can change how another person views his or her story.
Eventually, if enough of us perceive life through a redemptive lens, the larger challenges of society and the world can come into more meaningful focus. Shame, anger and blame are replaced by hope, humanity and the anticipation of healing. This is the domino effect of one meaningful response to adversity. It, at first, reminds us that we are not alone in our pain, confusion and suffering. Then it shows us that adversity is not the end of the story; there is a way forward and redemption can be found. Imagine what can happen when this spirit pervades an entire country.
What exactly will America look like on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic? The choice is up to us.