Life is not lived in epiphanies

The human brain loves stories. It may be how we have evolved to store information. Language developed before literacy, and in order to convey ideas from person to person, we had to be able to remember those ideas. We forget all sorts of useful information, but we’re able to trot out a familiar tale at dinner parties, telling it in such a predictable format that our spouses know to jet out to the bathroom three words in.

There are downsides to this, of course, beyond driving our loved ones crazy. Our love of stories is not terribly rational, and people sometimes make policy choices based on compelling stories — whether those stories are representative or not.

But I was thinking of this issue with stories more recently in light of reading way too many personal essays. Here’s the structure of a personal essay: Our heroine has always thought something. Then she experiences three new data points. Then, boom! She has an epiphany, and everything changes.

Stories are built around epiphanies. We like moments where something new is realized, where everything shifts. We like stories of transformation. We reach our heaviest, out-of-sorts selves and boom! Something clicks and we start training for a marathon. We find ourselves eating so much chain restaurant crap that the kids head toward the car when they hear it’s time for dinner and boom! We start cooking every night.  

I do believe change is possible. But life is not lived in epiphanies. This fact bothers me about prolific personal essayists. How are so many moments where everything changes possible? We are always Saul on the road to Damascus.

Or at least we think that’s the way it should be. But usually it isn’t. Change is often about grinding it out, doing things incrementally different, and celebrating small wins. People tell me they want to exercise more and so now they’re going to get up daily at 5 a.m. to run! It fits the transformational change format of a story you can tell, but it also won’t happen. How about one time a week? Can you try working out once? If you manage to exercise once, and it’s not awful, and you try it again a few days later, and maybe that’s not so awful either, then eventually it might stick. And eventually things will be different. But if you’re waiting for blinding flashes of light, you might be waiting a long time.

In other news: See Nicole and Maggie’s Grumpy Rumblings on small change.

Also: I have a post at Fast Company about surprisingly similar career advice from both Sheryl Sandberg and Charles Murray.

9 thoughts on “Life is not lived in epiphanies

  1. Haha! I was just reading about confirmation bias yesterday.

    Speaking of small change, I recently read a book about kaizen that kinda knocked my socks off. Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

  2. Ha ha, yes, its the problem with blogging…the format is set up to work well as an essay, yet, truly those “big change” moments happen rarely to never in most people’s lives.

    1. @Ana – it’s one reason I don’t wind up writing a lot of personal essays. I’m pretty even-keeled, I think, and I know myself pretty well. So it’s unlikely I’m going to discover something huge and new and life changing. I am not opposed to it, but when I do move in different directions, or figure new things out, it’s usually not in a blinding flash of light. It’s been building up for a long time, based on many things.

      1. The best personal essays aren’t “blinding flashes” either…they reveal process, the don’t come to a singular conclusion, etc. That’s what I love about them.

  3. Part of the fun of reading your blog is seeing where it leads me. I enjoyed Nicole and Maggie’s blog as well. Time to get off the couch and do something! One little thing!

  4. Hi Laura,

    Really enjoyed your article but I couldn’t disagree more! Life is lived by discovering new things.

    In order to start on a small path of change you have to have a moment of realisation surely!?

    I agree story tellers (I happen to be one) love telling it as ‘and then it clicked…’ Or ‘and then it hit me…’ It’s the thing that songs and movies are made of. But they; just like anyone else had a moment of realistion, it’s just the way it’s conveyed made it sound like they had never thought about the issue before.

    This article made me a bit sad because I always talked about epiphany moments with my ex.

    She would discount my thought process on everything because for me, it takes several small events and one big one in order to process change, yet it DOES not mean I wasn’t processing the smaller bits as I went along.

    I agree in some circumstances it should not require a ‘big moment’ in order to progress with change… But please don’t discount the thought process, it’s just a slightly different way of handling it, not the wrong way.



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