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Journal of Constructivist Psychology


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The Problem of Narrative Coherence


Dan P. Mcadams
a a

Northwestern University, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Evanston, Illinois, USA Published online: 16 Aug 2006.

To cite this article: Dan P. Mcadams (2006): The Problem of Narrative Coherence, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19:2, 109-125 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10720530500508720

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Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19:109125, 2006 Copyright Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC ISSN: 1072-0537 print / 1521-0650 online DOI: 10.1080/10720530500508720

THE PROBLEM OF NARRATIVE COHERENCE

DAN P. MCADAMS Northwestern University, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Evanston, Illinois, USA

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A growing number of psychological theorists, researchers, and therapists agree that people create meaningful selves through the individual and social construction of coherent life stories. But what is a coherent story? And are good life stories always coherent? This article addresses the problem of narrative coherence by considering the propositions that coherent life stories (1) provide convincing causal explanations for the self, (2) reflect the richness of lived experience, and (3) advance socially-valued living action. Like all stories, life stories exist to be told or performed in social contexts. Most criteria for coherence, therefore, reflect the culture within which the story is told and the life is lived.

The idea that a human life resembles, or can be made to resemble, a coherent story holds a great deal of intuitive appeal. After all, it is quite likely that people have been telling stories about lives for thousands of years. But it has only been within the past two decades that psychological researchers, theorists, and practitioners in the United States and Europe have begun to explore stories and storytelling in a systematic and critical way. A narrative psychology of human lives began to emerge in the 1980s as social philosophers (MacIntyre, 1981; Ricoeur, 1984) and social scientists (Bruner, 1986; Cohler, 1982; McAdams, 1985; Sarbin, 1986; Polkinghorne, 1988) proposed that people make sense of their own lives in terms of self-defining life storiesintegrative
Received 4 September 2005; accepted 25 November 2005. The preparation of this article was supported by a grant to the author from the Foley Family Foundation to establish the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. Address correspondence to Dan P. McAdams, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208, USA. E-mail: dmca@northwestern.edu 109

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narratives of self that reconstruct the past and anticipate the future in such a way as to provide life with identity, meaning, and coherence. Around the same time, cognitive scientists began to consider human information processing in terms of story scripts and autobiographical scenes (Mandler, 1984), and developmental psychologists began to study the emergence of narrative understanding in children (Nelson, 1988). On the practitioner side of the ledger, the 1980s witnessed a turn toward narrative among many psychoanalysts, who now began to conceive of therapy as a process of life-story re-formation and revision (Schafer, 1981; Spence, 1982). Shortly thereafter, new approaches to counseling and psychotherapy began to emerge under the banner of narrative therapy (White & Epston, 1990), a movement that continues apace today (Angus & McLeod, 2004; Lieblich, McAdams, & Josselson, 2004). The many different approaches to the narrative study of lives that have emerged in the social sciences and the helping professions over the past 20 years tend to share implicit constructivist assumptions about human behavior and experience (Josselson & Lieblich, 1993; Neimeyer, 2001; Neimeyer & Raskin, 2000). People construct stories to make sense of their lives; therapists and their clients co-construct new narratives to replace disorganized or incoherent stories of self; lives become meaningful and coherent (or not) amidst the welter of social constructions and discourses that comprise contemporary postmodern life. It follows, furthermore, that story constructionat the level of the individual, group, and even culturemoves (ideally) in the direction of coherence (Linde, 1993). Theorists, researchers, and therapists of many different stripes underscore the importance of constructing coherent narratives of the self. But what is a coherent narrative? What makes a life story coherent, or incoherent? And why is coherence such an important property of stories? Many strong voices in the narrative study of livesfrom sociologists to developmental psychologists to clinicianssuggest that a coherent story is, almost by definition, a good story. But are coherent life stories always good? And to what extent must a good life story be coherent? Basic Storytelling The most fundamental property of stories is that they exist to be told. Stories presuppose a basic scenario of human sociality: a

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teller narrates or performs a story in a social context, to or for an audience. The teller may seek to entertain, instruct, admonish, or inspire the audience, or the teller may merely be trying to stave off boredom, just passing the time of day. Whatever the motive or function behind the storytelling effort, the entire scenario falls apart if the audience cannot make sense of what the performer conveys. In a social context, stories must be coherent enough to communicate something, no matter how simple the message (Labov, 1972). The storyteller cannot avoid, then, this implicit question: Am I being understood? If the answer is no, then there is no point in telling the story in the first place. In the most basic sense, the problem of narrative coherence is the problem of being understood in a social context. A story told in a foreign language is incomprehensible to a native audience. In a similar manner, a story that depicts events or happenings in a random way, or in a way that defies the audiences expectations regarding how human affairs should unfold in time, may be deemed incoherent. Ricoeur (1984) and Bruner (1986) write that stories convey the vicissitudes of human intention organized in time. A character wants something or intends to accomplish something and the story chronicles that effort over time. Mandler (1984) argues that many stories follow a predictable grammar: An initiating event evokes a response in the protagonist, who then acts to accomplish a goal, which leads to a consequence or reaction on the part of another character, which leads to another attempt, and so on. Prior events are seen as causing, or at least leading up to, subsequent events. As one event leads to the next, a story may build to a climax; by the end, tension is resolved and the listener experiences a sense of closure (Kermode, 1967). Stories are typically structured to capture and hold an audiences attention and to elicit from the audience certain emotional responses (Brewer & Lichtenstein, 1982). The plot structure needs to articulate a deviation from the course of humdrum, everyday life in order to create suspense and elicit the audiences curiosity (Bruner, 1990). Otherwise, why tell a story? Stories that defy structural expectations about time, intention, goal, causality, or closure may fail to elicit curiosity and interest and may strike audiences as incoherent, or at least incomplete. A story that begins at the chronological end, jumps then to the chronological beginning, moves forward two years

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from that point, and then moves backward one month, and then forward 10 years may be difficult to follow. The listener expects a story to have a beginning, middle, and end, and this expectation is typically couched in terms of time or chronology. Of course, a skilled narrator may be able to toy with these expectations to good effect, but (James Joyce notwithstanding) he or she will still need to provide enough information so that the listener/reader/ audience can eventually piece together a rough chronology of events. If the narrator does not do this, listeners may do it for themselves, imposing a coherent temporal structure onto an account that seems to lack one (Mandler, 1984). Or listeners may just give up, concluding that the story simply does not make sense. In a similar vein, stories that depict characters whose actions seem to have no motive or goal, or lay out plot lines that seem to go nowhere, or fail to provide a causal account for a sequence of events, or never reach a culmination, resolution, or satisfying sense of an ending may also seem incoherent. In response to these kinds of stories, audiences end up scratching their heads and wondering: What was that story about? Why did that happen? What was the point? And concluding, I just dont get it. While coherence, then, may refer to the structure or form of a story, it may also pertain to a storys content. A story that depicts events or happenings that defy the listeners understanding of how the world works and how human beings typically act, think, feel, and want may seem as incoherent as one that violates structural norms. If, for example, I tell you a story about a young girl who was so hungry that she no longer wanted to eat, or if I tell you how my friend once loved a woman so much that he felt he had to kill her, you are likely to say that my tales do not quite make sense, or you will ask for more information, more narrative details, more context to render them more coherent than they initially seem to be. Our shared expectation is that as people get hungrier, they typically seek to eat; we also expect that as a persons love for another increases, he or she typically does not seek to kill the object of that love. Of course these kinds of accounts could be made coherent (the girl lives in a universe wherein eating depletes the bodys resources; my friend suffered an abusive childhood, so now he associates love with violence), but in their present form they defy what most audiences under-

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stand to be human nature, how people typically relate to each other, the facts of the natural world, and so on. In the examples of the hungry girl and the love-strickenfriend, the storys content renders it incoherent. What happens in the story does not make sense. In all cultures, storytellers are constrained by content expectations that people the world over likely have regarding human nature and social relationships. It is quite likely, for example, that the story of the hungry girl would make as little sense among hunters and gatherers in the Australian outback as it initially does among well-educated Europeans. But many other expectations about what kinds of plots can be told and what kinds of characters can be depicted are socially constructed and articulated according to local norms. Shweder and Much (1987) document how storied explanations for behavior that would make little sense to most Americans and Europeans narratives that explain todays behavior, for example, in terms of the kinds of food eaten yesterdayare viewed to be highly coherent and meaningful in a rural Indian village. Within a given society, moreover, different narrative traditions offer their own standards of coherence. Among many evangelical Christians in the United States, for example, stories about Christs second coming to earth, about Christians being taken up to heaven while all others are left behind, and about a great war between the forces of God and the forces of Satan in the last days hold tremendous power and coherence. Millions of Americans deeply believe these stories to be true. For millions of other Americans, these stories make no sense whatsoever. They seem unbelievable, incoherent, and even delusional. Causal Explanations Bruner (1986) suggests that the rational and material-cause logic of what he calls the paradigmatic mode of human thinking is best suited for explaining how the physical world works, but when people seek to explain human behavior and experience they resort to the narrative mode. If the paradigmatic mode searches for the one true answer to a question about physical reality, Bruners narrative mode entertains a range of plots, characters, and stories in order to explain why people do what they do. Narrators cast themselves as protagonists in the stories they tell to explain

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their lives and to make meaning of their own thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors extended over time. If a life story is to make psychological sense, then, it must explain how a person came to be (and who a person may be in the future). It must provide a causal account of how, for example, a young woman decided to become a physician or why a middle-age man regrets not having married his high-school sweetheart. The stories narrators provide to explain their lives (for themselves and others) cannot be proven true or false in the same way that paradigmatic arguments can often be assessed. But the stories still need to sound convincing. In their research on adult attachment orientations, Main (1991) and her colleagues ask men and women to recall important incidents from their childhood involving relationships with their parents and to consider how those incidents may have impacted their current functioning. In a number of studies, adults whose accounts indicate a secure/autonomous attachment orientation focused easily on the questions; showed few departures from usual forms of narrative or discourse; easily marked the principles or rationales behind their responses; and struck judges as both collaborative and truthful (Main, 1991, p. 142). The narrators with secure attachment histories provided more coherent accounts of their childhood, including stories of both positive and negative events with caregivers. By contrast, adults whose accounts were judged to be less securethose showing dismissing and preoccupied attachment orientationstended to be relatively incoherent in their narrative transcripts. They exhibited
logical and factual contradictions; inability to stay with the interview topic; contradictions between general descriptors of their relationships with their parents and actual autobiographical episodes offered; apparent inability to express early memories; anomalous changing in wording or intrusions into topics; slips of the tongue; metaphor or rhetoric inappropriate to the discourse context; and inability to focus upon the interviews. (p. 143)

Insecure orientations were also indicated by narrative passages relying on bizarre thought patterns and magical causality (p. 145). Being able to tell stories about childhood that themselves provide plausible causal accounts regarding the impact of parents on the self is a key indicator of a secure attachment orientation

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in adulthood, argues Main. Such accounts strike the listener as sensible and believable; they provide coherent causal explanations for how a person believes he or she has developed over time. A number of theorists argue that people are not typically able to construct full life stories that provide convincing causal explanations for how they came to be who they are until they have reached their late-adolescent or young-adult years (McAdams, 1985; Singer, 2004). Reviewing research on life-storytelling and narrative understanding, Habermas and Bluck (2000) demonstrate that the full expression of narrative identity awaits the consolidation of four different cognitive skills, each linked to a form of narrative coherence. What Habermas and Bluck (2000) call temporal coherence typically emerges before the age of five, as children learn to recall and recite single events in their lives as little stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. Temporal coherence refers to the ability to put the happenings of a single event into a sensible order. As they grow older, children learn about what events typically make up a normal life writ large, and they internalize societys expectations and assumptions about the human life course. They may learn, for example, that children live with their parents through most of their teen-aged years, that they may leave home to continue their schooling or get a job after that, that they may eventually find a life partner and perhaps have children, that people often retire in their 60s, that they may live as long as age 90 or more, and so on. Different societies and different subcultures hold different expectations about the life course, expectations that are also strongly shaped by gender and class (Stewart & Malley, 2004). The internalization of this societal knowledge provides what Habermas and Bluck (2000) describe as a sense of autobiographical coherencean implicit understanding of the typical events and their timing that go into the construction of a typical life story. The person may come to see his or her own life as a variation on a general autobiographical script. What Habermas and Bluck (2000) call causal coherence emerges in adolescence as people now become able to link separate events into causal chains. The events themselves become the key episodes to explain a current aspect of self or a future goal. For example, a young man may now be able to explain why he wants

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to become a lawyer. It all began, he suggests, in junior-high school when he realized that he enjoys arguing with his teachers. Litigators argue cases; maybe I might be good at that, he thought. In high school, he talked with his girlfriends mother, who is a practicing lawyer, about what lawyers do and what law school is like. His interest was piqued further through college classes in political science where he learned more about how laws are made and changed. These developments dovetailed with the growing recognition (in high school) that his baseball skills were probably not strong enough to get him to the major leagues, putting an end to a rival career aspiration. The aspiring lawyer is able to put these events together into causal chains, creating an explanatory narrative. Should he eventually change his mind and decide to go into the ministry, he will need to choose different events, or spin the same ones in a different way, in order to provide a coherent explanation for a new life goal. In a related fashion, adolescents and young adults are also able to extract from a series of narrated events an overarching theme or general message, revealing what Habermas and Bluck (2000) call thematic coherence. A young woman may describe different events from childhood and her teenaged years that all converge on the conclusion that I am a brutally honest person. A young man may survey very different episodes from school, family life, and experiences with friends to demonstrate that I tend to have problems with commitment, especially when I really care about the people involved. In both these examples, the narrator tries to explain a general self-attribution in terms of a recurrent theme that can be traced through different scenes in the life story. The story is coherent to the extent that the listener is convinced that the different scenes indeed express the same theme. In both causal and thematic coherence, the narrator justifies a conclusion about the self (I want to be a lawyer; I am a brutally honest person) in terms of an explanatory narrative. Working in Bruners narrative mode of thought, the person links together different scenes in his or her life to explain who he or she is (Baerger & McAdams, 1999). Whether the scenes really happened the way the narrator recalls and tells them is not a trivial issue (coherent stories should be credible, too), but the coherence of the account relies largely on the narrators powers of

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reconstruction, imagination, and synthesis. People differ substantially with respect to their abilities to tell life stories exhibiting causal and thematic coherence. Pals (in press) has examined individual differences in the extent to which adults justify selfattributions and draw conclusions about the self from autobiographical memories. She shows that the tendency to display causal and thematic coherence in life stories is positively associated with independent measures of psychological well-being. In a similar vein, Blagov and Singer (2004) identify integrative memories in life stories, in which narrators draw lessons about the self, important relationships, or life in general, suggesting that these kinds of narrative accounts are especially coherent and convincing. Thorne, McLean, and Lawrence (2004) distinguish between specific lessons learned and general insights gained in life-narrative accounts. Stories about lessons spell out how a protagonist applies what he or she learns from past events to similar new events whereas insight stories reflect on the larger implications of the event for ones construal of self or relationships with others. According to these researchers, listeners are more positively inclined toward insight stories, over stories about specific lessons. Among the most coherent and convincing life-narrative accounts are those that show how a protagonist gains insight, wisdom, or self-understanding from a series of reconstructed life scenes. Lived Experience In a clinical setting, a therapist may work with a patient to transform a disorganized and scattered life story into one that expresses more causal and thematic coherence (Dimaggio & Semerari, 2004). All other things being equal, a life story that explains clearly how a person came to be who he or she isa narrative that successfully integrates a life in timeis better than one that does not. Such a story suggests a modicum of self-insight and is more likely, than an incoherent story, to make sense to the important audiences in a narrators lifefrom family, friends, and coworkers to the broader social settings and institutions that comprise the social ecology within which a persons life is embedded. But is coherence, in the sense described to this point, always enough? Josselson (2004) describes a clinical case in which a patient articulated a very clear and convincing life story whose rejection,

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nonetheless, became the central goal of psychotherapy. A 19year-old woman referred to therapy for alcohol abuse, Heidi presented a well-ordered autobiographical account of a bright, high-achieving college student who enjoyed a full life with friends and family. In therapy, however, it became clear that the story Heidi told was not of her own emotional making. Instead, it was the story that Heidis mother narrated for her. Even in the first session, Heidi hinted that she was not the narrator of her own life. Asked how she had decided to come to therapy in the first place, Heidi replied that she did not know for sure, but, she said, I will be home this weekend and Ill listen to my mother tell it as a story. She weaves it into a plot with logic and a goal (Josselson, 2004, p. 112). Throughout her life, Heidi looked to her mother and other important authority figures to tell her what her life meant. In essence, Heidi functioned as the protagonist in a story narrated by somebody else. What Heidi was missing were not the cognitive components but the imagination necessary to make her story go beyond logical, causal coherence to a story rooted in subjectivity, Josselson wrote (2004, p. 114). Over the course of therapy, furthermore, Josselson came to realize that Heidi was now looking to her, the therapist, to narrate a new story for her. Josselson found it sometimes difficult to resist, for a therapists empathy and desire to help can often result in a rush to coherence. Nonetheless, Josselson counsels therapists to hold back when necessary and to be willing to experience with the patient the anxiety of sitting with undigested elements of experience until they take meaningful shape, however transitory or provisional the shape may be (Josselson, 2004, p. 125). The case of Heidi points to a larger problem in evaluating life narratives, whether the evaluation takes place in therapy or research. For all its coherence and clarity, Heidis story was not her own. Her story did not reflect her own subjectivity, her own lived experience (White & Epston, 1990, p. 15). Life is messier and more complex than the stories we tell about it. Yet the stories need to convey some of that complexity if they are to be viewed, by the self and by others, as credible and life-affirming. Bruner (1986) argues that stories ultimately seek verisimilitudethe lifelikeness that is conveyed when a story seems to capture well what subjective human experience is really like. Researchers such as King and Raspin (2004) and Pals (in press) show that the ability

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to dig deep into painful experiences and to narrate personal suffering in an honest and convincing way is indicative of psychological health and maturity in adulthood. Rosenwald (1992) writes: Better stories tend to be structurally more complex, more varied and contrastive in the events and accompanying feelings portrayed, more interesting and three-dimensional (p. 284). Life stories that achieve verisimilitude express the full panoply of discordant strivings, emotions, and points of view. As Hermans (1996) has argued, subjective experience is animated by contrasting voices, trends, and idiosyncratic expressions. The well-formed narrative identity is like a polyphonic novel, Hermans claims, giving full expression to a complex and shifting dialogue among the many voices of the self. Stories that succumb to a single, dominant perspective, no matter how coherent they may seem to be, are too simplistic to be true; they fail to reflect lived experience. Perspectives on narrative identity that prioritize multiplicity offer a range of attitudes about coherence. Hermans (1996) rejects the simple consistency of a univocal self, but he suggests that a kind of self-coherence can nonetheless be realized in the multivocal dialogue itself. Different voices, or I-positions, assert their separateness and autonomy, Hermans maintains, but they may also be seen as working together by virtue of participating in the same self-defining conversation. For Hermans, the dialogical self incorporates both centrifugal and centripetal featuresforces that promote both separateness and coherence. Hermans conceives of the dialogical self
as a synthesizing activity, that is, as a continuous attempt to make the self a whole, despite the existence of parts that try to maintain or even increase their relative autonomy. The nature and function of this synthesizing activity can best become understood if we discern two antagonistic forces in the self; one centrifugal, another centripetal. The centrifugal force refers to the tendency of the different parts to maintain and increase their autonomy: The lover wants to love, the critic to criticize, the artist to express, the achiever to excel. As long as these characters are involved in their activity, they are not concerned with the strivings and longings of the other characters. Their intentions require a certain degree of autonomy. The centripetal force, however, attempts to bring these tendencies together and to create a field in which the different characters form a community. For the establishment and organization of this community, the synthesizing quality of the Self is indispensable. (Hermans & Kempen, 1993, pp. 9293)

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Other theorists, however, are less sanguine about the selfs powers to create coherence. Sampson (1989), Gergen (1991), and Raggatt (in press) argue that the modern self is bombarded with so many diverse stimuli and shifting demands that it simply cannot assume a coherent form. Raggatt (in press) asserts that the imposition of coherence upon modern life constitutes a hegemonic insult. Life stories should resist dominant cultural narratives and strive instead to portray the rich diversity of lived experience. For Gergen (1991), modern life creates a saturated self. For many people living in contemporary, postindustrial societies, lived experience is chaotic, confusing, even multiphrenic Gergen (1991) asserts (p. 7). Therefore, if life narratives are true to lived experience, they are likely to be unstable, indeterminate, and incoherent. Gergen may be exaggerating to make a cultural point, but clinicians are indeed quite familiar with the kinds of life stories he depicts. Dimaggio and Semerari (2004) write that many psychotherapy patients relate
stories that are confused, disordered, and incomprehensible, characterized by thought themes and emotions that get mixed together without any apparent sense. Patients may provide descriptions of the same character that are intense and at the same time opposite and mutually incompatible, or they may open an infinite number of parentheses without ever closing them while hundreds of characters come onto the stage competing with each other for the floor. (p. 267)

Many life stories portray the crowding together of a multiplicity of voices, struggling to get heard, drowning each other out, competing with each other, and subjecting a listener to an unintelligible whir (Dimaggio & Semerari, 2004, p. 268). For these therapists, life stories can be too true to lived experience! When the selfs synthesizing powers break down, therapists need to help patients construct stories with fewer characters and simpler plots, in the hope that more coherent life stories will translate into more coherent and more effective lived experience. Advancing Living Action A life story is more than a mere literary production. It is a story of the self told by a living person whose actions affect others. It is

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a story whose form and contents hold real-world significance. The problem of narrative coherence, therefore, extends to the issue of living action. Satisfactory [life] stories, Rosenwald (1992) writes, advance living action (p. 284). The stories we live by must be evaluated with respect to their influence on how we live. A paranoid and self-absorbed middle-aged man may present a life story that convincingly and coherently explains how he came to be who he is and where he is going in the future. His story may fully express the deep lows and the exalted emotional highs he has experienced. It may effectively give voice to the many different characters who populate his story. It may fully express his lived experience. But is this coherent story a good story? Should the audiencefriends, family, societyrest content with the narrative identity this man presents? Researchers, theorists, and clinicians continue to struggle with the question of how life stories do and should relate to social life itself. The issues raised in this inquiry transcend the literary and the psychological to encompass morality, values, and the meaning of a good life. Some writers argue that a coherent life story presupposes a clear moral perspective on the part of the narrator/protagonist (MacIntyre, 1981). Life stories are never value-free, the argument goes. Narrators make implicit moral claims when they construct stories to convey their lived experience and to explain who they are (Linde, 1993). Furthermore, the life stories they construct are grounded in moral assumptions and ideological convictions regarding how the world should work and how human beings should relate to it and to each other (McAdams, 1985). When traumatic events undermine the ontological and moral assumptions upon which a life story is based, the narrator faces the daunting challenge of reworking those assumptions in order to make new meanings in a world that now seems meaningless (Neimeyer, 2001; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). For a life story to be considered coherent, therefore, it needs to be implicitly based on a recognizable set of human values, and it needs to be told from a recognizable moral perspective. The perspective should advance the living action of a moral agent. That action will be evaluated within moral communities, that is, all human communities. For social life is always moral in some sense, always evaluated with respect to explicit and implicit norms about what is good and what is not.

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This all seems a tall order for the concept of narrative coherence. It may suggest that we are stretching the notion of coherence too far. Perhaps a more sensible assertion would go like this: Good life stories need to be coherent, but coherence is not enough. If stories are to advance living action, if they are to inspire lives wherein protagonists love deeply and work effectively, lives in which people make positive contributions to the world around them, then life stories must express more than mere narrative coherence. We live and we tell, as Sartre (1965) understood. Human beings are storytelling animals, Sartre maintained, but the stories we tell do not need to relate easily to the lives we live. Too much telling can get in the way of living; narrative coherence may signify what Sartre called bad faith. On the other hand, some researchers, theorists, and therapists have argued that people who do indeed love, work, and live well, and who do make especially positive contributions to the world around them, do tell especially coherent stories about their lives (Colby & Damon, 1992; Rosenwald, 1992; White & Epston, 1990). For example, McAdams (2006; McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, & Mansfield, 1997) shows that midlife American adults who score especially high on measures of generativityindicating a highly productive and caring approach to social lifetend to construct highly coherent life stories whose main themes constellate around the idea of redemption. Redemptive life narratives portray an innocent but deeply principled protagonist who journeys forth into a dangerous world, transforming suffering into advantage, struggling with contrasting desires for freedom/ power and community/love, and ultimately seeking to give back to others for the blessings enjoyed along the way. The redemptive narratives told by highly generative American adults in their midlife years appropriate some of the most cherished (and contested) discourses running through American cultural history Protestant conversion narratives, rags-to-riches stories about the American dream, narratives of liberation and freedom, self-help narratives about recovery and the actualization of human potential, broader discourses about manifest destiny and the chosen people. These kinds of stories are widely recognized in American society as coherent and convincing accounts of the good life, even as they are sometimes critiqued for their presumptuousness, their lack of ambivalence, and their exuberant celebration of the expansive individual self.

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In considering the power of life stories to advance living action, the issue of narrative coherence shades into moral concerns and ultimately reveals the cultural underpinnings of narratives and of the very concept of coherence itself. If the first principle of stories is that they exist to be told, then any consideration of narrative coherence must eventually come to terms with the characteristic assumptions regarding what kinds of stories can and should be told in a given culture, what stories are understandable and valued among people who live in and through a given culture. And the same consideration cannot be divorced from cultural expectations regarding what kinds of lives people should live. Living action, like narrative identity, can never hide from the interpretive cultural eye. At the end of the day, culture will judge whether a life is worth living, and whether a life story is worth telling. References
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