Three Languages for Living A Life That Matters
Dan P. McAdams

When Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass asked me if they might include the opening chapter from my book, The Redemptive Self, in a compendium of readings they were assembling on how to live a good and worthwhile life, I was beyond thrilled. When I received my copy of Leading Lives That Matter, I quickly turned to the section containing my contribution, to make sure they spelled my name right and to read their commentary on what I had written. Once I determined that I was happy with all of that, I tried to relieve the guilt I was feeling regarding my self-preoccupation, so I quickly surveyed the rest of their 545-page book. With readings from over sixty different sources, ranging from The Iliad to Ben Affleck, the collection looked spectacular. I read a few short selections (William James, Charles Taylor) that seemed most germane to my own research interests (the topic of human identity). Then I put the volume away, figuring I would pull it off the shelf again when I had more time to savor the contents.

Predictably, the book collected dust in my home office for over five years, despite the fact that my wife (Rebecca Pallmeyer) and I spent many wonderful afternoons and evenings with Mark and Dorothy during those years, either when they came to Chicago for a play or dinner, or when we returned to Valpo for Christ College events. The topic of Leading Lives came up occasionally, which forced me to fake my way through conversations as if I had read the whole thing. Finally, I did pick the book up again. Asked to write a short chapter for a professional volume on the topic of identity in the college years, I reasoned that Leading Lives might give me some good material. Surely, Aristotle had something to say about identity!

Well, 545 pages (and one week) later, I staggered back to my writing task, now overwhelmed by the book’s intellectual riches. The sections by Aristotle were great. Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych was the perfect finishing touch. But for me, the best parts were written by Mark and Dorothy themselves, as they framed the key issues addressed by the many different authors and posed provocative questions. I felt I was back in class, transported to Christ College circa 1975, when Rebecca and I were blessed to learn from such master teachers as Warren Rubel and Bill Olmsted. And now I had to write a paper for the course! Yet in this case, the paper assignment—my chapter on student identity—was about something I have been studying as a research psychologist for over thirty years.

I am both humbled and grateful that Mark and Dorothy gave me sparkling new insights and a fresh perspective for the chapter I was writing. To be more specific, they suggested three different languages for the construction of identity. In an integrative tour de force, Mark and Dorothy explained how contemporary young people who want to lead a life of purpose and significance may draw upon three different languages of identity to make sense of their lives. Revealed in classic texts and in contemporary fiction, film, and philosophy, these are the languages of authenticity, virtue, and vocation. The psychological researchers and theorists whom I customarily read often touch upon these ideas in their discussions of identity, but nobody has delineated it all as clearly and as persuasively as Mark and Dorothy have.

What Is Identity?

In everyday psychological parlance, identity refers to who a person is or who a person (reflexively) thinks he or she is. Social psychologists emphasize that one’s identity consists largely of social roles and group affiliations, and the beliefs and traits we associate with those roles and affiliations. I am a father, husband, professor of psychology, and Cubs fan, among other things, and all of these roles and affiliations feed into my overall identity.

Beginning with Erik Erikson and other mid-century theorists, however, certain psychologists have raised the bar when it comes to defining identity. Erikson acknowledged that young children have a primitive understanding of themselves in terms of roles and affiliations, but he insisted that a full sense of identity does not emerge until much later, adolescence at the earliest, when the person organizes the various self-relevant roles, affiliations, traits, beliefs, skills, and habits into a psychosocial pattern. The pattern or configuration that Erikson had in mind productively positions the person within the adult world while providing life with a deep sense of inner sameness and continuity. As Erikson saw it, identity is something that you actively construct and synthesize as a young adult. He put special emphasis on articulating a personal ideology and finding an occupational niche. In meaningful concert with the other elements that make up who you think you are, knowing what you believe and what you hope to accomplish in your work as an adult helps to give you the feeling that you are fundamentally the same person across different situations and over time.

When you have an identity, in Erikson’s sense, you know who you are and how you came to be. Moreover, you have a good sense of the person you are becoming, as you move into the future. Identity, then, integrates the past as you recall it and the future as you anticipate it. Although Erikson never explicitly put it this way, identity seems to involve the formulation of a story for life, an integrative narrative of the self that brings together your reconstructed past and imagined future in order to explain how you came to be the person you are becoming. To have an identity is to have a life story and to live that story over time.

My own work in personality and developmental psychology emphasizes the idea that identity is created through story. Beginning in our adolescent years, we seek to find the story for our life that makes our past make sense, to show how our past made us the persons we are today and how all of that may lead to what we now imagine our future to be. What I call narrative identity, then, is the story that you are working on for your life, an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that works to provide your life with some degree of unity, purpose, and continuity over time. We each construct our own unique story for life, but the story itself is strongly shaped by the forces of family, religion, history, and culture. Moreover, our narrative identities change over time, as we encounter new experiences, as we suffer and flourish across the adult life course, and as we gain new insights into the central characters, plots, settings, scenes, and themes that comprise the stories of our lives. Narrative identity is rarely written in stone. Stories are less fixed than certain other features of our personalities, such as our basic dispositional traits. Many of us continue to rewrite the narrative over the course of our lives.

Exemplary Life Stories

What should we do? How should we live? We research psychologists are not shy about ­addressing the kinds of questions that Mark and Dorothy raise in their seminal volume. However, we are often vague, clumsy, and philosophically inconsistent when it comes to finding the right words for a prescriptive discourse of identity. As social scientists, we are typically more comfortable with languages that apply to what is rather than what should be. When it comes to life stories, however, people speak freely both of what is and of what should be, as well as what should have been, what might have been good but wasn’t, what seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good, what is evil, heroic, redemptive, and on and on. In order to understand the stories people tell about their lives, the psychological researcher needs to be able to detect and to understand prescriptive, morally-valenced languages. My education in the humanities which began at Christ College, my varied life experiences, and my own religious background have tended, I suspect, to help me discern and appreciate these languages; I am better at this sort of thing than most of my colleagues. But reading Leading Lives helped me to clarify and articulate what I have been discerning all along.

In telling the stories of their own lives, participants in my research will often say that a particular decision they made “shows who I truly am,” or “illustrates something that has always been true for me.” They will talk about how they pursued a particular goal or relationship because “I really wanted that,” or because it summoned forth deeply felt emotions of joy, excitement, love, or wonder—feeling states that they associate with being true to themselves. In so doing, my research participants are employing what Mark and Dorothy label as the language of authenticity. Integrating selections from Charles Taylor and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark and Dorothy describe this language as stemming from the conviction that each individual possesses a unique self that deserves a degree of individual choice and autonomy. With respect to narrative identity, to be authentic is to find my real story.

When people feel that they are authentic, they feel they are presenting and expressing themselves as they truly are. They are cutting through the pretenses of everyday social conventions and expressing something that is deeply “true” and “real.” In the iconic words of Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye, authentic people are not “phonies.” They know who they are, and they express themselves accordingly, even when such expressions defy societal norms and niceties. Going back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Americans have tended to value the authenticity of the autonomous individual over and against what are sometimes seen as the artificial, even oppressive, strictures of the group. Be true to yourself, we are told. Don’t follow the crowd. Look inside yourself for the inner light that tells you who you really are.

As compelling as the language of authenticity can be, it may be unsatisfying for those who question whether being true to the self is always such a good thing for the group. After all, what if my longing for authenticity turns me into a narcissist? The language of virtue, therefore, offers something of an antidote to the individualistic excesses that authenticity can sometimes produce. It challenges the person to live a good life, even if some degree of authenticity is sacrificed in the process. Going back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the language of virtue identifies particular character traits that are deemed to be qualities of a good life because, for the most part, they enable people to live together well in groups. Given that human beings evolved to live in complex social groups, an acute sensitivity to virtue is probably embedded in human nature. Moreover, Aristotle argued that citizens are happiest when they live their lives in accord with such virtues as generosity, temperance, and friendship. The world’s great religious traditions all enumerate characteristic virtues for living together in social groups. While each tradition identifies its own unique candidates, there is considerable overlap for such virtues as honesty, fairness, love, self-control, humility, and gratitude, among others.

 For many of us, however, leading a life that matters involves even more than finding my true story and living a good life. The languages of authenticity and virtue do not go quite far enough, in that many of us may also feel the need to make a difference in the world. This kind of longing or aspiration runs through many life narratives. My own research has documented its centrality in the life stories of especially caring and ­productive midlife adults. Other studies have shown that it is especially salient in the narrative identities of many college students, especially those pursuing careers in medicine, nursing, teaching, and social work. These kinds of stories are often told in the language of vocation.

As Lutherans know, the concept of vocation has its historical roots in the Protestant Reformation and the attendant belief that all Christian men and women are “called” by God to service. As Luther saw it, any kind of regular and legitimate work—from manual labor to parenting to active involvement in the community—might qualify for the status of vocation, as long as the Christian did the work out of love for God and in service of humankind. In each person’s own small way, therefore, he or she could make a positive difference in the world, while glorifying God in the process. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the concept of vocation evolved to encompass the more secular idea that each person may have unique skills and talents that can be used for the good of others, and it loosened its connection to religion. On the contemporary scene, the challenge of vocation is to discover and develop personal gifts and to find ways to use them for the betterment of society.

On college campuses today, the language of vocation provides a strong alternative to the general sentiment that higher education should prepare young men and women to go out into the world to make money. Vocation is not necessarily antithetical to careerism and personal ambition, but it can soften and inform these motivations by adding the critical component of service. In Leading Lives That Matter, Mark and Dorothy bring together a wealth of readings and ideas that aim to promote fluency in the language of vocation. Their selections and discussions also challenge readers to consider how their own lives, and the stories they tell about them, may be shaped to make a positive difference in the world.

As paragons themselves of authenticity, virtue, and vocation, Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass continue to make a positive difference in the lives of their friends, colleagues, and students, and for the readers of their wonderful volume. I can say for certain that my own life story has been enriched by their friendship and by their wise words.


Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University and chair of the Psychology Department. He is author of numerous articles and six books, including The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford, 2006).

Copyright © 2016 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy