How does Chronology Work?
Think about your own life: things happen in a certain order, don’t they? You’re born, then you learn to crawl, then learn to walk, then learn to talk, and so on. You’re not born discoursing on Aristotelian ethics. You learn that later . . . or at least you should.
Let’s say that you’re a famous person, because, you know, everyone wants to be famous. Your biographer or the person making a documentary about you may want to understand why and how you became famous. Your fame is the effect of which they are trying to discover the cause. What led to your popularity? Was it your good looks? Your charming personality? Your privileged upbringing? A series of chance encounters with “the right person?” Your hard work ethic? A little of everything?
There are at least two basic ways they could write your biography and explain the cause and effect of your life: chronologically or topically. The former would be structured according to time, and the latter according to groupings of similar events (topics), such as your educational or professional experiences. These are two ways to talk about cause and effect.
If your biographer were to order their book chronologically, they’d begin at the beginning. A chronology is a way of representing events according to the order in which they happened. How one leads to, or causes, another. The word chronology comes from two ancient Greek words: khronos and logos. Khronos means time, and logos means word. The affix -ology usually refers to a field of study or body of knowledge. In a sense, we could refer to this method as a study of time.
Using this approach, the biographer would begin with your birth. Where were you born? What were your parents like? Were they present in your life? Then they would discuss relevant events in your life – siblings, primary and secondary school, college, if you got married, your first job after college, and so on and so on. All of the various details that impacted you in these seasons and chapters of your life would be discussed like a timeline, one after the other, one causing the other.
Another way would be to write the biography topically – that is, in sections of similar events. These might include topics like family life, your favorite hobbies, educational experiences, career and professional accomplishments, etc. You may have noticed that I did not list these in a chronological order: generally we experience family first, then school, then work. but most of us experience a lot all of those things simultaneously. To tell the story simply, chronological organization may be difficult and confusing to follow. For that reason, some people will choose to tell the story topically. Then they can discuss causes and effects as they regard specific topics in your life. This will help the storyteller avoid jumping from event to event in the order that they occurred.
You may be able to see how the topical approach has some advantages. But, like everything else in life, it has disadvantages as well. For one, we don’t experience life in a compartmentalized fashion. Some of us do our best to compartmentalize events, and at times that may be necessary, but usually our frustrations at work, for example, will bleed into our home life and vice versa.
So, getting back to your fame, we can begin to see how to truly understand why you became famous requires a fuller understanding of all of the facets of your life and the interplay between them. For example, getting into graduate school may clearly have benefitted your career. But maybe you had a loving and supportive spouse while you were there that without whom you would have failed. Or perhaps growing up with an abusive parent gave you the grit and determination to succeed.
The only thing simple about this process is knowing that the cause will always happen before the effect. But sometimes the cause may not be obvious, or perhaps there are multiple causes and multiple effects that are all intertwined.
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