The Story of Our Lives
Story shapes reality. On the surface we imagine that story is only, well, story. But story is power. The one with the best story wins.
Story shapes reality but we go along thinking that stories are shaped by reality. Silly us. We are shaped by story.
We think we make the story but the story makes us.
Each of us is given a story and usually more than one. They told stories about us before we could remember what happened. The story they told shaped our memory – in fact, we have memories we do not even remember except that we were given them by stories.
Being the youngest of five I can remember all kinds of stories they told about me before I could remember. There was the time I snuck to the Thanksgiving table at my Aunt Elma’s house and ate all the cottage cheese before dinner started, and then got sick. I do not actually remember that event but I have formed memories of the story as it was told to me and so can see it all unfold in my mind.
I’m sure you have some implanted memories too.
So we have the story of our life that was given to us – our story as told by others; some who loved us and some who did not. Even those who love us can tell stories that hurt, but those who do not love us can tell powerfully hurtful stories.
As an agent of change in an institution that has preservation as its self-identity, and with a career in congregational development and mission renewal in which churches reimagine and re-establish themselves for growth, I have heard more than a few stories told about me. Even in times when I was the most self-differentiated as I have ever been, to hear others tell stories that do not jive well with my own story, hurts.
At the same time, other people’s stories about us are worth listening to because in them we hear things we may not have seen or understood about ourselves. While understanding that their filter is not ours, and because they have perceived us in a particular way does not mean their story is the official one, we can use it as feedback to learn and grow.
But we all have been given stories that other people tell and that shape the reality of those who believe its narrative. When the stories people tell are not our story we cannot obliterate the other versions but we can tell better ones. In the end, the stories that really matter are the ones we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, as well as to others.
The story that matters most, and the one that shapes our reality more than any other story, is the one we tell about ourselves.
There are many versions of our stories. There is the elevator version, the quickie “spin” we could tell in the length of time it takes to go on an elevator. There is the public story, the one we could tell to anybody, as well as the intimate story we tell only a very few. There is the humorous version and the tragic one, the heroic version and the painful one.
The question we might want to consider, if we haven’t already, is whether or not our story is a theological one.
Is our story a story that reflects the presence of the holy? Is it a story that evokes a sense of mystery to those who hear it? Do we, or can we, tell our story as a theological story or is it only a psychological, sociological or philosophical one? Do we have a sense of the presence of God in our own story or does that seem like too much of a stretch?
It is worth thinking about, especially if we are interested in a deeper, fuller, more supple spirituality.
For example, I could tell you that I started out wanting to major in Chinese philosophy in college but became interested in Existentialism and switched to general philosophy instead. When I graduated I spent a formative year working in a mental health unit that led me to apply to seminary from which I received a master’s degree in theology before being ordained in the church of my childhood. That’s my story.
Or I could tell you my story another way.
After college I was lost and drifting while working in a mental health unit and totally bewildered about what to do next. After writing my childhood bishop an anguished letter about whether or not to apply to seminary, he wrote back and said he had been waiting many years for me to write. I could tell you that I was a drunk and a perpetual drug user, and that I flunked the theology section of my General Ordination Exam because its readers (and graders) said my answers were heretical while the Examining Chaplains in my home diocese thought they were great answers. I could tell you the only reason I am doing what I am doing today is because God parted the red sea for me to move through it, otherwise I would have drowned a long time ago. That’s my story.
Both stories are true, but one leaves out more of the between the lines narrative than the other and as a result misses the presence of the holy that I perceive to have shaped my story.
We can tell our story to others, and to ourselves, in all kinds of ways; and many versions of the same story can be authentic. Our stories are endlessly interpretive that way. But what we see in our own stories, and what we are willing to say when we tell them, especially to ourselves and then to others, make a tremendous difference in how they shape the reality of our lives.
Our stories have the power to shape our lives; the power to shape us. Our stories shape our reality. What’s your story?