How to Live One’s Story

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1640.

When I’ve talked about the need to defend one’s story, I’ve had in mind my experience that ill-wishers can show astonishing astuteness in picking out key elements of the life project or story they choose to attack, even before the victim herself understands the story that is under attack.

But, whether or not it’s attacked from without – the real question is:

Can I discern my story

If I can’t, it might slip away, even without a premeditated assault against it. Implicit here: one’s story has a normative aspect. It’s not composed just of the bare happenings of which one may become aware, awake or asleep. To “live one’s story” requires discernment and, at times, the courage to fight for it! It calls for closing the gap between how one actually lives an experience and how one might live it better.

In the way I am using the term “story,” might it not be better to call it the “ideal story”? I prefer to avoid the term “ideal,” because of its better-than-achievable connotation. The story that concerns me is fully achievable.

I like to compare its achievable aspect to certain examples in the Bible. Take the wonderful Joseph story in the Book of Genesis. Joseph – who’s been wickedly torn from his home, sold in Egypt, and is now a slave in the House of Potiphar – could have said to Potiphar’s seductive wife, “Hey, great idea! I desire you too! Let’s you and me kill Potiphar and take over his House!” Instead of which, Joseph finds himself falsely accused by the scorned wife of doing exactly what he refused to do, and is sent to prison. What’s the point? 

The point is that he loses everything – 
but saves his story.

So, “the ideal” as I see it doesn’t mean unfeasible-down-here-but-realized-in-heaven. Rather, it’s found precisely in the here and now that confronts us. I don’t know about you, but I can’t cure, or even treat lepers, without the help of a team of medical specialists. Nor could I part the waters of the Reed Sea without some serious water transfer engineering. However, I can refuse to vote for a candidate for chairman of my department whom I think unqualified, even if I’m pretty sure that my refusal will get me fired.

Let’s go to fictional examples. They’ll be less controvertible. Lately I’ve been gripped by a series on Netflix with the title “Virgin River.” Maybe you’ve watched it. It’s so well written and well acted that I forget it’s fiction and will catch myself worrying about its characters. Here’s the plot so far. A good looking young woman named Mel comes to the small town of Virgin River to take an advertised job as the nurse to the town’s doctor. She hopes that the change of scene will help her recover from the loss of her stillborn baby and the recent death of the husband she loved.

At the restaurant bar where townspeople gather to eat and exchange the local news, Mel meets Jack, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who owns the bar. They fall in love. Do they live happily ever after? You can bet they don’t. First, Jack decides to end his affair with a local woman. However, before he can quite do that, she turns out to be pregnant. With twins! His twins.

In real life, I don’t normally give advice. But this is fiction — so here goes! Mel should not have excluded her late husband from her grief over the loss of their stillborn baby. It was his loss too. They should have lived it through together. Had they done that, mutual anger might not have grown to the point of precipitating the driving accident that caused his death. 

With regard to the twins: once Mel discovered that Jack’s ex was pregnant, she should have quit her job in Virgin River and found a nursing job elsewhere. That would give Jack the time and space needed to see if he could bring himself to marry the woman whose babies he would be responsible for, as their father, in any event. As long as the emotional tug-of-war continues, between his new love and his former lover, the battered combat veteran will be unable realistically to sort out his duties and emotional resources.

So much for Abbie’s advice. What part of it is not contained in the actual, seemingly modern script? Only a reference to the norms, not just the social conventions but the best idea of what’s right to do. The omission is misleading, though of course it intensifies the dramatic suspense. Most people, when they are caught in a situation not of their choosing, do take their feelings and the practicalities into account — but they also consult the norms! In the real-life dilemmas, real people ask themselves and their well-judging friends, what is the right thing to do?

In real-life choice, there is a normative element to be discerned. Sometimes the ideal solution is unreachable or presents itself only as a choice of the lesser evil. Still, to ignore the ideal element misrepresents the nature of the real choices embedded in our human situations. 

A friend once asked me for advice about how to handle a corporate intrigue in which she’d found herself embroiled. I asked some questions. “What are the officially-assigned responsibilities of each player in the intrigue, within the corporate structure? What is your job description in the corporate structure? What feasible actions are available to you within your assignment? What do you figure to be the likely consequences of each course of action available to you? What would do the most good in the situation, regardless of the cost to you? Is there a way for you to take the better course, while minimizing the risks to you?”

And so on and on. A situation can be approached in idealizing terms, without necessarily having to walk off a cliff every time. Realism and idealism are not always, or necessarily, at odds. If one can reconcile them, one should certainly try to do that.

Huh? What about God and good, hell and evil? Well, life isn’t as picturesque as a fairy tale. The moral or spiritual configurations don’t show up in full regalia at key turns of every road. 

Not to worry. If we mind our own business, God and good, hell and evil, will show up in due course. 

They have their own timetables.

Related Reading: Where’s the Self? | Must Our Stories Come Out Right?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Biblical God, bigotry, book reviews, books, bureaucracy, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply