The Power of Redemption Stories

The story of redemption is as American as apple pie. It’s there in the Autobiography of Ben Franklin – he went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation - and the pulp fiction of Horatio Alger, which recount the “rags to riches” tales of working-class boys in the mean city. It’s the narrative that President George W. Bush pitched on the campaign trail - he was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking – and what Oprah preached on her show, often using her own painful childhood as an example.

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has spent years studying the details of these redemptive narratives. He describes five distinct themes that define this “quintessentially American story about how to live a good life.” The first theme is “early advantage,” as the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start. This is soon followed by scenes in which the narrator describes their “sensitivity to suffering,” how they noticed the unfairness of the world. Then, there is the trope of “moral steadfastness”: these people live their lives guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. This is followed by “redemption sequences,” or moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state.” Finally, there is the education provided by the hard times, as the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people.”

In a new paper published in Psychological Science, McAdams and Jen Guo demonstrate the strange power of these stories of redemption, how they frame our lives, shape our personalities and influence our behavior. The scientists demonstrated this by interviewing 157 late-middle aged adults for two to three hours. The subjects were asked to describe their life as it were a novel, complete with chapters, characters and themes. After the interviews were transcribed, their stories were analyzed in terms of the five motifs of the redemptive narrative. Were there hints of “moral steadfastness”? Did the subject describe “redemption sequences”? What about “prosocial goals”?

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that these biographical tales are inherently biased and subjective. When we create a personal narrative, we are not seeking the literal truth – we are craving coherence and meaning. (As John Updike once wrote, “Composition, in crystalizing memory, displaces it.”) This is especially true of redemption narratives, which force a happy ending onto the trials and tribulations of life. In the real world, not everyone gets redeemed. Not all suffering has a point. The poet Randall Jarrell, who knew a thing or two about anguish, put it this way: “Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom. It is pain.”

And yet, and yet. For many people, these redemption narratives – even when they simplify the facts of life - help them live better lives. In the new paper, McAdams and Guo show that the five themes of redemptive stories are strongly linked to “generativity,” a personality trait associated with generosity and selflessness. “Generative adults seek to give back to society,” McAdams writes in his 2006 book The Redemptive Self. “They work to make their world a better place, not just for themselves but for future generations.” McAdams then quotes a highly generative adult on the lessons he gleaned from his hardest times: “When I die, I guess the chemicals in my body, well, they’ll go to fertilize some plants, you know, some ears of corn, and the good deeds I do will live through my children and through the people I love.”

Not surprisingly, high levels of generativity are linked to a surplus of benefits, from positive parenting styles to community engagement to better mental health. (In previous research, McAdams has shown that generativity is also inversely correlated with depression.) This suggests, say the scientists, that “the prototype of the redemptive self appears to be a life-story format that is deeply implicated in healthy psychosocial adaptation in the midlife years.”

But the question remains: why are redemptive narratives so closely associated with generativity? One possibility – and it’s only a possibility, since correlation is not causation – is that redemption narratives better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life. To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth. As it goes in Romans 5:3-4: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.”

Is that biblical equation always true? Does suffering always lead to something better? Of course not. But sometimes we need to believe.

McAdams, Dan P., and Jen Guo. "Narrating the Generative Life." Psychological Science (2015)