Why Am I? Finding Meaning in the Stories We Tell
By JL Snyder
Before you read too far, I need to give you a warning: this essay is about death. But it’s also about life.
I think it’s fitting that this will be the fifth and final installment of a series that I started over a year ago. After the who, the what, the where, and the when, we've reached the most precarious question of them all: why am I?
And you can't talk about the why without talking about what happens at the end of the why.
In the first three essays of the series, I used my sociological background to explore common science and technology themes in literature. In the fourth, I attempted to highlight some of those same themes with a story of my own. But in this final essay, I have the privilege of sharing with you the lessons that I learned from some unique individuals as they told me about their lives and helped me understand what it means to be at the end of your life.
There are no novels for me to write about here. The people that inspired this work haven't had their lives recorded by well-known authors or published in any books. You won't find their stories in libraries or bookstores, but they do belong to real people. For all that they have taught me about storytelling and life, I am indebted to these individuals.
You Always Think You Have More Time
When I started this series, I already knew what I would be writing about in the “why” piece. I knew it would be about death. However, I never could have predicted how timely the essay would become. I lost my Uncle Danny (my mom’s brother) during the early stages of writing this piece. 10/23/21. It wasn’t traumatic or sudden. He was 69 years old and had been riddled with health complications his entire life. But he had beaten cancer when I was a kid, so I kind of thought he was invincible. He was the human embodiment of a cat with nine lives. So, while the updates from my mom on his deteriorating health in the weeks prior to his death made it expected, they didn't make it any less surreal. Or any less painful.
I hadn't seen my uncle since before the pandemic started, so it was hard to conceptual his death as something tangible. The pandemic took a lot from us in this way. I had been up late one night painting, thinking about how I should text him before it was too late. I woke up the next morning to the news of his passing. Suddenly, it was too late. It will always be too late. The last update that I received from my mom was that he was discontinuing treatment but that he could hang on for weeks or months. He died two days later. I thought I had time. You always think you have more time. I wrote these particular words just hours after his passing, and telling this story was the first time that it felt real.
The hundreds of miles of distance between me and my family, both immediate and extended, also made it difficult to grieve, so when I finally made the trip up to Western NY a week later, I was more than ready to face reality. At his request, my family held a “celebration of life” rather than a traditional funeral, but I found that it contained many of the same social norms: food, family, hugs, and most importantly, endless stories and unexpected laughter. There is something so incredibly healing about storytelling as a form of remembrance. I come from a family of very skilled storytellers, and my uncle was the kind of guy that always seemed to be in the process of living a story that would one day be told about him. Retelling these stories, together as a family, was our opportunity to both memorialize his life and allow ourselves room to grieve our collective loss.
Right around the time of my Uncle Danny’s death, my Uncle Dave (also my mom’s brother) was admitted to the ICU where he spent the next two months fighting for his life. Three days into 2022, that fight ended. In an eerily similar way, I also missed the opportunity to connect with this uncle, who is also my godfather, before he passed. I was once again too late. It’s hard to think about death happening to your family, but it’s a whole new kind of pain when it happens twice in a little over two months.
Like many families right now, this new wave of the pandemic is preventing us from having a formal funeral or memorial service for my uncle. I can’t help but consider how the grieving process will differ this time, specifically without the opportunity for my family to gather in love and to laugh as we share stories about my uncle’s life. While we are planning to come together some time in the near future, I’m also left to wonder how I can truly celebrate his life now without sharing these stories. In many ways, the grief feels unbearable, and his death even feels incomplete, without this ritual. I’m learning just how much I underestimated the role that storytelling plays in seeking and finding closure after unspeakable loss.
A Scientist’s Approach to Stories
I am, by training, a sociologist of technology. As a social scientist, I am compelled to use scientific research methods to explore questions about our social world, and what interests me most is trying to understand how technology impacts the ways that we navigate that world. My scientific training has encouraged me to be impartial, unbiased, and calculated in my pursuit of the truth.
At the same time, I am also deeply artistic. I derive immense joy from writing, painting, listening to music, and building things. I am moved by any and all forms of creative expression.
At first glance, these two fully realized sides of my personhood appear to be at odds with one another. It wasn’t until the past few years, when I began to lean into my appreciation of storytelling, that I came to realize how shortsighted that conclusion was. In fact, it is within the act of storytelling that I finally found the interconnectedness between my pursuit of meaning and my desire to make the world come alive.
In 2018, I began collecting data for my dissertation as a requirement of my sociology PhD. I spent the entire year visiting an assisted living facility conducting interviews and observations of the staff, the older adult residents, and their family members. When I started the project, I was almost exclusively interested in a thematic understanding of how technology impacted the daily lives of these individuals and how they made decisions to use or not use those technologies. However, as a way to gather background information and build rapport with the residents, I would always begin my interviews with the same open-ended question: “Can you tell me a little bit about your life?”
Some of the residents chose to keep their answers short and sweet, but for others, this was an open invitation to share their life stories with me. I heard about parents, siblings, children, best friends, first jobs, war, love, loss, and everything in between. I was privileged to hear some of the most heartbreaking and awe-inspiring stories from the lives of these strangers.
I also came to the realization very early on that there was something happening during those interviews on a much deeper level than I ever could have expected. While the stories that they were telling me were ripe with interesting data about their technology use, the interviews themselves were shaping up to be a deeply social act. My participants were becoming storytellers, and I was their audience. Every day that I spent listening to these life stories brought me closer to understanding storytelling as a science as much as it is an art form. Ultimately, if stories reflect our lived experiences, then storytelling is how those lived experiences truly come alive. The way that we choose to tell our stories is just as important as the stories themselves.
The Science of Storytelling
In response to my newfound curiosity about the science of storytelling, I needed to find a sociological research methodology that would allow me to analyze my interview data in this way. Thankfully, I stumbled across Narrative Gerontology, an interdisciplinary field of study that centers on using stories to understand and enhance the experiences of older adults. It hinges on the idea that human beings are inherently both storytellers and storylisteners and that the act of storytelling persists throughout one’s life.
In the field of sociology, Narrative Gerontology is particularly useful for understanding the self and identity in old age. Narratives are a way for us to both construct and perform our identities. Narratives help us understand and develop our identities throughout our lives, as well as perform those identities for a social audience. For my research, I was particularly interested in understanding my participants’ technological identities, specifically, the role that technology plays in developing one’s sense of self, and how that technological identity is constructed and performed through the telling of their life stories.
Additionally, data analysis in Narrative Gerontology pays specific attention to the context in which the narrative is told. Both the storyteller (the research participant) and the storylistener (the researcher) engage in the co-construction of reality during the narrative process. Meaning exists both in how the story is told and how the story is heard, and subsequently, retold.
The specific narrative analysis that I used to analyze my research data was a three-level positioning analysis, which examines how, during storytelling, people construct and perform their identities by positioning (or comparing) themselves against: 1. the other characters in the story, 2. the storylistener, and 3. themselves. The second level of the positioning analysis focuses on how the story is being told for an audience. This level acknowledges the role that the interviewer, as an audience member, plays in the telling of this particular story at this particular time and place. Stories are told for audiences, and thus, we must come to understand that the setting for the interview, including the position of the interviewer, will influence the story that is told.
Storytellers and Storylisteners
Unlike many other research methodologies, in narrative positioning analysis, the researcher plays an active role in the creation of meaning. Stories are not simply “truths” that are being written down. Rather, storytellers make intentional decisions during the storytelling act: what to reveal and conceal from the audience, how to frame themselves and other characters in the story, etc. We can analyze the structure of the story and how it is told, rather than just the content of the story, to discover underlying meanings about identity.
Likewise, the way that a story is being told can change moment to moment based on feedback that the storyteller is receiving from the audience. Scientists must always be reflexive about their own biases and positionality (the way that one’s social location and experiences influence how they interpret the world) and the effect that can have on the research process. For many scientific methodologies, the goal is to be as neutral and objective as possible. The researcher is not meant to have any influence on the outcome of the study. Narrative Gerontology instead chooses to lean into the inevitable by measuring and analyzing the influence of the researcher on the creation of the narrative.
For example, one of my participants, James, an 87-year-old man, immigrated to the United States from England after college to seek employment as a chemist. He was well-educated and highly intelligent, but due to his declining physical health, he was no longer able to live independently. At his doctor’s recommendation, his car was taken away from him and his niece was designated as his power of attorney. James felt what so many in assisted living feel: a profound and sudden loss of independence. While he lived most of his adult life as a brilliant scientist, the prestige that came with holding such a position did not follow him into the later stages. When we began discussing his technology use, James was transparent about his low levels of use, but he was quick to convince me that there was no reason why he shouldn't or couldn't use newer technologies, such as a computer or a smartphone. Throughout the interview, he consistently spoke in a way that framed himself as a more frequent user of technology than he actually was. After a detailed analysis of the interview, it became clear that he was attempting to control the narrative as a way to reestablish the independence that had been taken from him. It was important to him that I, as the audience member to his life story, viewed him as an autonomous person capable of making informed decisions about his own technology use.
Approaching the interviews with this new understanding allowed me to fully appreciate my participants as storytellers rather than just interview subjects. And I was the storylistener. These roles were reiterated by a common occurrence that emerged near the end of the interviews. I would signal the end of the conversations by saying, “Well, that’s all the questions that I have for you,” and many of the participants would respond with something along the lines of: “Well, I don’t know if I’ve been very useful,” or “I hope I didn’t bore you,” or “Well, hun, I hope I was some help to you.” In fact, my conversations with the staff of the assisted living facility often ended in the same way. At the conclusion of almost every interview, I found myself reassuring the participants that I genuinely enjoyed listening to their life stories. So many of my participants were worried that they were not good interview subjects, and thus, not good storytellers, even when the stories they were telling were about their own lives.
While I can’t say for certain that this finding is generalizable to a larger population, the experience stayed with me. Why is it that people are so convinced that their stories are meaningless or that they are a burden to those that are listening to them? What does it mean to be a good storyteller or to have a “good” story? Likewise, what obligation do we have as storylisteners to the stories that we are told?
The End of a Life
You learn a lot when you take the time to truly listen to the narratives of people at the end of their lives. You hear stories of regrets, of lives well lived, of great loves and great losses. You learn about family and travel and illnesses. I struggle to put into words the impact that these interviews had on my understanding of the world and my role in it. In many ways, listening to stories about life and death from a group of people who were essentially strangers helped me not only come to terms with my own mortality, but it also allowed me to mature in the way that I handle grief and personal loss.
While it manifested in several unique ways, every single older adult that I interviewed spoke of their life, unprompted, as if it was at its end. In order to not influence their responses, I was extremely careful to never state that I believed that my participants were at the end of their lives. And yet, every single one of the residents brought it up on their own. For many of them, they simply spoke of their lives as if they exist solely in the past or soon will:
“It was a good life” rather than “It is a good life”
“I’ve had a wonderful life” rather than “I have a wonderful life”
“I have no regrets”
“We had a good time”
“I haven’t died yet” (said with laughter)
“I’m satisfied. This is my home. This is it. Unless the dear Lord takes me or they throw me out”
For others, when they talked about the end of their lives, they did so with a sense of doneness. One of my participants, 98-year-old Harold, explained to me, “One good thing about this life is I was close to my kids all the time. Now I’m ready to go. There’s not much left in my life. It’s just sitting here all day long.” Likewise, when I asked James how he spends his days at the assisted living facility, he responded, “God, well I won’t say I don’t know. I spend my days, that I do know. I sort of live through the day one way or another. Not very constructively.”
I found that even among those that looked fondly on their lives, this general sense of discontinued purpose is common among older adults in non-independent living situations. The move to an assisted living scenario is typically indicative of one of the following two things (or both): a decline in physical health or a decline in mental capacity. Unfortunately, this often results in demoralization and a frustrating loss of autonomy. As 90-year-old Margaret explained to me, “I think we all are kind of in the same boat: just getting older and struggling each day.”
However, for others, feeling so close to the end gave them a renewed sense of appreciation for the remaining time that they do have.
When I spoke with 90-year-old Betty, who still drives herself around town and even takes college courses at the local lifelong learning institute, she admitted that she felt discouraged by the mental and physical state of some of her fellow residents. She saw them as her future, so she wanted to stay as active as possible now before it was too late: I try. You don’t know how long that will last. I look around here and I think, ‘I’m fortunate. Do it while you can.’“
For 96-year-old Doris, that also means helping her family comes to terms with her limited time left. When they threw her a birthday party this past year, she (jokingly) warned her family that she would most likely not make it to her 100th birthday: “It’s just those things. You take things for granted. Sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don’t get there.”
Before I began my dissertation research, I was prepared to hear from a population that, by nature of their age, were lower users of technology. What I did not fully anticipate was the role that the “end of life” narrative would play in our interviews. I did not expect to be so deeply immersed in the life stories of these older adults, and I was even more surprised with how candidly they all spoke about the impending end to their lives.
For some of the residents, a decline in their mental and physical health, along with the loss of independence inherent in assisted living, resulted in a much more frustrated reflection on the end of their lives. Things were not how they expected or wanted them to be, and at the end of the day, they were simply tired of living. However, for others, they approached the end of their lives with a sense of calm and peace. They had lived a good life, and now it was time to move on. They had no regrets.
In addition to the loss of my Uncle Danny in October and then my Uncle Dave in January, my grandmother (who in many ways was the inspiration for my dissertation research) is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The convergence of these three events, plus the years that I spent buried in my research on older adults, has meant that the meaning and purpose of life is constantly at the forefront of my mind.
Like some of the residents that I interviewed, I hope that I am fortunate enough to have a sense of calm and peace when I arrive at the end. I hope that I can look back and say that it was a good life and I had done all of the living that I wanted to do. I hope that I can look back and know for sure that my story is complete. I know all too well right now, as many of us do, that not everyone makes it to that point. So as we enter into 2022, I can’t help but think that maybe that’s the perfect New Year’s resolution for me: to treat every day, every moment as a small story within my big story. So, when I am at the end, I have a story that I am proud to tell.
So, What’s the Answer to the “Why?”
While Narrative Gerontology and the positioning analysis were initially used to get the most out of my interview data, I can’t help but acknowledge the profound impact that this theoretical framework has had on my understanding of myself as a storyteller. I respect that there is a school of thought out there that encourages writers to write for themselves, and themselves alone, regardless of their potential audience. But that approach just doesn’t work for me. My words, my writing, my stories, they mean nothing without my storylisteners. In a way, everything that I write is a love letter to you, my dear reader. My heart and my truth live in every essay and story that gets published. You may not know me, but just maybe, as you read my words, you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. That is why I write.
Please never forget that being a reader is just as important as being a writer. Being an audience to those stories is the whole point in them being told. Do not discredit the role that the storylisteners play in this conversation. Do not underestimate the impact that you have right now as you read my words.
Maybe the purpose of all of this living is to just keep telling stories. Maybe we are breathing life into ourselves and everyone around us through the simple act of storytelling. Maybe that is the why. I guess, for me, that’s as good of a purpose as I need: to live a storied life; to bravely tell that story to others; and to listen, with an open heart, to the stories that we are fortunate enough to be told.
So that's the end of this story. The who. The what. The where. The when. And now, the why. Why am I here?
I am here to tell stories, and I am here to listen to yours.
- JL Snyder