A Narrative for Our Lives
“[W]e adopt, in so far as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. . . . But simplicity as a guiding principle in constructing conceptual schemes is not a clear and unambiguous idea.”
W.V.O. Quine, “On What There Is,” From a Logical Point of View, 16–17
No matter if we are philosophers (like Quine), scientists, or grand viziers of Egypt (like Joseph), we all constantly engage in the process of slotting the “disordered fragments of raw experience” into an overarching framework. And, Quine notes, however strictly we cleave to the path of greatest simplicity, we still exercise some choice in constructing these narratives. On revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph makes clear that he has developed such a framework; in the words of Aviva Zornberg, he has “discovered a vocabulary to describe his life” (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, 335).
וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם. . . . וְעַתָּה לֹא-אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים
“Now, do not be sad or angry with yourselves that you sold me, because God sent me before you to save lives. . . . So it was not you that sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:4–8).
Joseph’s certitude about his life’s mission, about why he was sold into slavery and why he rose to prominence in Egypt, is at once enviable and disturbing. Who wouldn’t like a little more assurance about what they have achieved and what their purpose is, something to cling to when the world is in turmoil? But the price for this confidence is that the brothers’ agency has been eliminated.
We all depend on the frameworks that we create to make sense of our experiences. The challenge is to forge narratives for our lives that are strong enough to hold us steady when confronted with life’s ups and downs, yet flexible enough to allow others in so that they can impact our lives.