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Office for Research
Creating New Knowledge
Narratives of Redemption
Who are the adults making the most positive impact on young people today? What are the psychological characteristics of the most caring and productive members of American society? Funded by grants from the Foley Family Foundation and the Templeton Foundation, Dan P. McAdams, human development and social policy and psychology, studies the lives and the life stories of highly generative American adults. Especially generative men and women are committed to promoting the well-being of the next generation and leaving a positive legacy for the future.
McAdams and his studies have shown that highly generative American adults tend to see their own lives as narratives of redemption. In a redemptive story, the protagonist is repeatedly delivered from suffering into an enhanced status or state. Redemptive personal stories provide a psychological resource for generative adults, sustaining their hope that hard work to benefit others today will pay dividends in the future. In creating stories for their own lives, American adults shape their personal experiences to certain common narrative forms that enjoy tremendous favor in American society, such as stories of atonement (from sin to salvation), upward social mobility (from rags to riches), personal emancipation (from enslavement to freedom), and recovery (from illness, addiction, or abuse to the full actualization of the good inner self).
Although redemptive stories in American life foster generative behavior and sustain hope for many adults, there can sometimes be a dark side to redemption. In some cases, redemptive narratives can border on self-righteousness and arrogance. There hero of the story may feel that it is his or her manifest destiny to transform or save the world in some way, even when the world strongly resists. McAdams explored the potentially dark side of redemption in his recently published psychological biography George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait (Oxford University Press, 2011). In the book McAdams argues that President Bush's personal narrative of redemption helped him achieve political success and personal fulfillment, but the same story also led directly and tragically to his decision to launch a preemptive military invasion of Iraq.
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