Life is Not a Journey: Can We Stop Calling It That?

Sometimes, we view our lives as a quest. Is that really accurate? (Photo: Public Domain)

How often do you think of your life as a sort of quest or journey? Perhaps over the course of this “journey,” you make some profound discovery about who you are. Maybe you “find” love. Then, later, maybe you “lose” it. It might even be that you envision your moment of death as one of existential fulfillment when, as you draw your final breath on the Earth, you think–maybe even whisper dramatically–that you’ve done everything you were “supposed” to do.

Yeah, that only happens in the movies, I’m happy to say. Life might be a lot of things, but it is anything but a journey.

Most of what I’m going to talk about is going to be anecdotal and I don’t have many statistics or specific quotes to reference. This is primarily a discussion of my own beliefs and worldview that, admittedly, are still evolving and likely will continue to do so for the duration of my life.

I recently listened to a lecture by Tyler Cowen (an economist who blogs at whose central premise was in pointing out problems with stories and their use in sharing meaning. The talk was at TEDxMidAtlantic in late 2009. You can view it here on YouTube. (Yes, I know I reference TED videos a lot. Deal with it.)

In line with Cowen’s description, stories can be most accurately described as (usually) arbitrary connections of events and circumstances that are designed and arranged in such a way as to be entertaining and/or enlightening. Indeed, some stories truly are enlightening and entertaining. Recountings of the successes and failures, trials and discoveries of those who’ve come before us (or, otherwise, who’ve done things we haven’t) carry a great deal of power to show how things work and don’t work. Stories however, leave out much information and even “true” stories are really only a version of the truth.

Of particular note, however, was Cowen’s reference to statistics showing that a majority (51 percent) of people characterized their lives as “a journey” when asked to do so in one word. Other popular metaphors were “a novel,” “a play,” and “a battle.” Cowen pointed out that few people responded, “My life is a mess,” which he said (and I agree) is probably the most apt appraisal of humanness.

I suppose, in a sense, life can at times resemble a story or journey but mostly in retrospect. People generally only remember the highlights and, even then, the highlights they tend to remember are the ones they believe shaped them into who they are at the moment of reflection. Stories, in principle, have certain characteristics: characters, for one, and a central plot. There is also virtually always some form of conflict that builds over time and finally climaxes before some kind of resolution is reached. While some peoples’ lives might be more story-like than others, the comparison is never a perfect one. A surprisingly high percentage of life is repetitive drudgery and not interesting material for a story.

It might be that our tendency to view life as a journey or story is a result of the prevailing conventions of thought in Western civilization that view time as linear, with the past behind and the future ahead. Time, of course, isn’t linear and nor is it circular as other though conventions suggest, but that’s a topic for another discussion.

When they speak about their lives, I often hear people refer to being at this or that “stage in my journey.” It’s as though the events and deeds of our lives have already been pre-determined and that we’re simply living them as we “move along through time.” Life, then, is effectively something that happens to us. Naturally, many wouldn’t characterize it in quite that way if asked but that’s essentially what’s being said and, ultimately, what this line of thought does–whether consciously or unconsciously–is allow people to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions, past and future.

The problem inherent to this philosophy is that there are things that have been that should not have been. Whether at the personal level or in terms of collective events involving entire civilizations, choices have been made in the past that were bad and the results were bad and whatever good might now exist is so despite–not because of–those choices. Granted, past events have significant bearing on the present and future but neither history nor life is giant row of dominoes falling in inescapable sequence. To believe thus is essentially to stop living.

What so many don’t realize is that viewing life as a journey actually undermines the concept of free-will. In other words, if everything that has happened was meant to be and was necessary for things to be the way they are (assuming we’re all at a place that we consider “good”), then suggesting that an event or decision could or should have happened differently means to take full responsibility for our actions. That’s a level of maturity not many people actually reach, I’m afraid.

Life is a mess. It’s unplanned and uncensored. It does not progress along a path, nor does it reach a resolution. In fact, probably the best description of what it means to live is simply “to be.” For those who walk with the Lord, our lives aren’t vastly different in principle from those who do not: the difference is that He abides with us as we go about our “being.” And whatever life is, it is not a story or a journey. A book that told of the events of anyone’s life exactly as they happened would be incredibly dull; that doesn’t, however, mean that life doesn’t have purpose. That purpose, though, is far greater, grander, and infinitely more complex than just a good story.

7 thoughts on “Life is Not a Journey: Can We Stop Calling It That?

  1. I’m tired of hearing people using that metaphor too. Sounds like somebody wants us all to believe that we’re all homeless wandering with no destinations. What’s wrong with settling down, settling into one place. Not everyone wants to live a life traveling around comparing home with somewhere else. The metaphor has gotten to be just so trendy and over used like so many other hip catchphrases and platitudes. For me, I’m ready for this one to fade out so we can go back to calling things we are doing what they are, a job, project, task, whatever humans referred to their interests.

  2. Pingback: THE ME FILE: About My New Name, Aidan | Roygeneable

  3. Of course life is not a journey. “Life is a journey” is just a cognitive metaphor used to articulate a self narrative of one’s self over time. Yet, viewed as a pilgrimage, a particular kind of journey with a particular destination — either exterior or interior to ourselves, it can be meaningfully likened to a journey. However you see your end of life, you will arrive at it, whether in timeless eternity or at the footstool of the creator of the universe. Only one who is enlightened enough to experience him/her as a “no-self” does not conceive of his or her existence through time as a journey. After all, when you say “Life is a mess,” aren’t you positing a path, direction, series of accidents, etc that brought you to this point?

    I enjoy the spirit of your blogging and will keep following your journey.

    Best Regards,
    Austen Balladf

  4. Roy-Gene, I agree with a lot of your points and your premise that an entirely predetermined life does absolve one of a great amount of responsibility. However, I do think the definition of “journey” should be called into question. As best as I can gather, your perspective deifnes “journey” as a sensationalized view of one’s own life in an attempt to add undue meaning or take away responsibility (that definition may be narrow). However, I would define journey as nothing more than a quantifiable term to describe the passing of time, and the maturing that comes with that. Because we Westerners view time as linear, we view time (and our lives) in stages. The idea of stages is that we group memories together and often group them relationally. I don’t think this is an effort to add adventure to our lives so much as it is to make remembering manageable.

    Also, to paraphrase Donald Miller, if one’s “journey” unfolds as dull or boring for the most part, it’s one’s own fault. Assuming life is a “story,” we are in essence the main characters, authors, and editors. It remains up to us to add adventure, meaning, to make it “readable” in essence. That perspective allows for life to be viewed as a “story” and for full responsibility to be taken for one’s own decisions.

    Just my perspective: one that is, like yours, still evolving.

    • “Because we Westerners view time as linear, we view time (and our lives) in stages. The idea of stages is that we group memories together and often group them relationally.”

      But that grouping is still arbitrary. We draw inferences and make connections between events and decisions when, in reality, one may or may not have led to or otherwise been influenced by the other. Even more problematic is the fact that our memories are extremely fickle and only partially accurate; we have to consistently make what are essentially educated guesses subconsciously to fill in the gaps in our information.

      I also still think it a slightly unrealistic to imagine even the most colorful of lives interesting in pure narrative. Bear in mind that I’m talking about a complete recounting of all events of a person’s life from birth to death, since that’s really what’s being said (whether people realize it or not) when they say that life is a story. It wouldn’t inaccurate, however, to say that life is like a story, inasmuch as it bears a resemblance to a story in certain limited aspects: namely, that it has a beginning and an end, that it involves people and events, and that it involves choices.

  5. Roy-Gene,
    You made some good points. I have to admit that I see things a great deal different than most people. I will also say that my life would be considered quite complex. I don’t tell a lot of it because maybe many would think me making up some of it, but believe me; I don’t need to make up anything to present a very interesting story when it comes to my life.

    I do believe that we make choices that determine our lives. We make mistakes that affect us greatly and changes the course of our lives. So no; I don’t believe that life is just a journey that’s predestined. I do know if I had made some better choices, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now, which is not really some place I wish to be.

    I do believe that there’s a perfect plan that God has for our lives and if we will follow it, our lives will be much better. Unfortunately, many of us don’t and we end up going down another road. That’s okay with God, He gave us the choice to make and He’s always there when we need Him or want Him in our lives. His Spirit will guide us gently but only when we’re willing to be guided. Otherwise, we’ll take our own way and then we’ll look back some day and realize that if we had listened at a time when we should have listened, things could have been much better.

    Thanks for your points, they’re well taken.

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