Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Composing My Life

AF's picture

Reading Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a life, I am reminded of my mother’s words, “You’ve never been good at adapting to change, Alex.” As much as I want to claim this statement is false, I know deep down I cannot. In my mind life has always seemed something of a tragedy with each change bringing new heartache and disappointment. Yet like most other young women, I still hold on to the school girl fantasy that one day I will reach the plateau of continuity where change will no longer touch me. It is only recently, in my Emerging Genres class at Bryn Mawr College that I have realized my perception of a successful life needs an immense amount of reconstruction.           

 A few weeks ago, my class read and discussed “From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry”, an essay by Professor Paul Grobstein. The intriguing topic of this paper, the explanation of one’s life as an emergence story, where life is an ongoing experiment in creation in which unknown futures can be shaped, rather than a narrative foundational story, where the past is the determinant of and the best guide to the future, has a strong parallel to Bateson’s view of the way in which a woman should address the composition of her life (Grobstein 2-5). Like Grobstein, Bateson believes “it is no longer possible to follow the paths of previous generations;” instead we should view “life as an improvisatory art” (Bateson 2-3). At first I was reluctant to agree with Bateson’s novel way of addressing one’s life story. Why would I want to see the events of my life as something subject to chance without a strong foundation in the past? The more I thought about it however, the more I realized that once I learn to free myself from the past, I can create my life as I live it rather than remaining lost in self imposed definitions. Through Composing a Life, I finally found the means of replacing the traditional notion of  life as a narrative foundational story with a view of life as emergent and wonderfully unpredictable.

Somewhere along the line, I began to subscribe to the fairly common belief that life is a test, that the past determines our future, and that failures are major disappointments one can never really overcome. I saw “achievement as purposeful and monolithic…rather than something crafted from odds and ends” (Bateson 4).  Life became a massive formula that only wanted the right numbers to make everything perfect. Unfortunately, I held the belief that my family was under some sort of curse. Everything always seemed to go wrong, from my sister’s serious heart condition to my father’s untimely passing. I took these tragic events to be the foundation on which I should base my own life. To me, “the end was already apparent in the beginning” (Bateson 6). The past immediately became what would define my future.

My father’s early death along with the pressure from society and the rest of my family engraved  in me the belief that I had to make my life “a quest, a journey through a timeless landscape toward an end that is specific, even though it is not fully known” (Bateson 6). By age thirteen, I was already researching colleges and trying to pick the illusive major I would define myself by for at least the next ten years. “Ambition, we imply should be focused , and young people should worry about whether they are defining their goals early enough to get on track” (Bateson 6). I allowed the world to ingrain in me a need for continuity, which left me in many ways unable to deal with the unpredictable disappoints that inevitably occur during every life. Thus, the very thing I thought I should believe in and strive for, the continuity of past to present, left me unprepared to address reality’s undeniable reliance on chance.

Until my Emerging Genres class, and more specifically, looking critically at Composing a Life, which I had read for a previous class but did not take seriously, I lacked the words to describe the kind of existence I longed to believe in. Now that I am no longer focusing on a narrative foundational story I can finally “see these lives of multiple commitments and multiple beginnings as an emerging pattern rather than an aberration” (Bateson 17). Instead of viewing my life as a previously defined and leading to a specific goal, I am  open to the endless possibilities that have yet to be conceived.

In light of this new found understanding of the way in which one should look at the composition of a life, I am shocked that as a society, we continue to ignore “that continuity is the exception in twentieth-century America, and that adjusting to discontinuity is not an idiosyncratic problem of my own but the emerging problem of our era” (Bateson 14). It is clear that I and this entire generation can no longer look to the lives of our parents and grandparents as examples to live by. We must learn to “invest time and passion into specific goals and yet at the same time acknowledge that these are mutable” (Bateson 9). Today, most college graduates will either change careers or have to adapt to changes in their careers more than once. “Children cannot even know the names of careers that will be open to them; they must build their fantasies around temporary surrogates” (Bateson 6-7). The idea that we can plan the life we want and then achieve it with little to no difficulty is more than outdated, it is completely impractical.

Clearly, the way children are educated in this society is not conducive to the ever changing and unpredictable environment in which they must learn to survive. If educators continue to deny students “a model of lifelong learning and adaptation, graduates are likely to find themselves trapped into obsolescence as the world changes around them” (Bateson 14).  Instead of teaching students to reach for a specific dream, educators should speak of the unforeseeable changes to come and give their students the resources to learn, adapt, and find a new path each time one inevitably closes.

Ultimately, I consider myself lucky to have picked a liberal arts institution to receive my higher education, however I agree with Bateson when she says, “the American version of liberal arts education, since it is not closely career oriented, provides a good base for lifelong learning and for retraining when that becomes necessary, but the institutions themselves often exemplify the opposite” (Bateson 16-17). For this reasoning exactly I am lucky, not only to be receiving a liberal arts education, but even more than that, to have picked the liberal arts college that has faculty both concerned with the emergent quality of life and pursuing a way to teach this quality  in the classroom.

Before discovering this enlightening work by Mary Catherine Bateson, I lived with the dread of each new change expecting only to be disappointed by the unpredictability of life. Now armed with wonderful professors, a novel outlook, and an intellectual environment in which I can discover how I wish to compose my life, I feel ready to take on the unforeseeable. I may not be “good at adapting to change,” but at least now I know  I have my entire life to practice. 



Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.


Grobstein, Paul (2007) “From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-

            Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry.” Soundings: 1-23


Paul Grobstein's picture

Bateson and emergence

Nice connection. Appropriate and useful. To, among other things, make it clear how theory is relevant to practice (and vice versa). Thanks.
Anne Dalke's picture

Emergent Life, Emergent Education


What tickles me about this paper is that it has its own “emergent” quality; you give an historical account of your own characteristic “genre” for thinking about life (“tragedy”), and some of the events that have contributed to that construction; you describe several, sequential challenges into that narrative—Paul’s talk, Bateson’s book, our class—and you weave all that together into a different sort of genre, the emergent composition, to describe your own life story. You find a number of very telling passages from Bateson’s book to illustrate your argument, and end up telling a very hopeful story: not only about the direction your own life might take, but about how contingent and random the process of education is.

I actually don’t quite believe that you are as “open to the endless possibilities that have yet to be conceived” as you claim (there is some evidence, elsewhere on Serendip, of your more conflicted reactions—terrified AND happy-- to "composing a class with improvisation"!) 

There are also a couple of spots where I think you overstate or overgeneralize your claims: one is when you claim that you are learning “to free yourself from the past.” But emergence, like narrative non-foundationalism, has a historic dimension. The past is still present, and still plays a role in the present; it is just not defining, or determinative, or over-determining what is going on now. The second spot where I see you over-stating is when you toss out “continuity” altogether. I’d say that acknowledging the inevitability of contingency and chance doesn’t mean that there will be no continuity in our lives; it’s just—as Bateson illustrates so well in her book—that you can’t identify the goal and direction ahead of time, but only be able to recognize that continuity retrospectively.

Where I’d most like to hear more from you is just @ the spot where you stop, agreeing with Bateson’s comment that American liberal arts education “provides a good base for lifelong learning and for retraining,..but the institutions themselves often exemplify the opposite.” I agree (and have been spending a considerable amount of my time @ Bryn Mawr @ work on changing the culture of this place) but why do you? What is your evidence? Why do you agree with Bateson here?

Another possible direction for this paper would be of course to loop back again to Melville, and compare the attitudes of various characters in Moby-Dick: what is Ishmael’s, what Ahab’s, what Melville’s attitude toward the notion of “composing our lives as emergence stories?”