If you took a long look at my life, you’d find enough material to justify a wide range of narratives. Sifting through the various episodes of my existence, you could edit a story to support any number of conclusions about who I am. Often, these various edits would tell completely opposite stories of my character and my interests.
For example, you could pull enough material from my life to support the thesis that I am basically a lazy person, who’s relied too much on talent and not enough on hard work. If you were going to tell the story of my life with that plot throughline, you might point out my fifth grade teacher’s comments about my not applying myself, about how I could be a really great student if I would work harder. You might look at my ninth grade geometry grades or my eleventh grade chemistry grades to see just how low I could go academically in classes I found pointless. It would further the case if you stumbled across my decision to drop out of Septuagint Greek my senior year of college because it just seemed like so much work. You could cut in a scene about my great ambition as a writer, which produced nothing much over the first twenty years of my professional life, except a few newspaper and journal articles. You could talk about my inadequacies as a handyman, my penchant for letting the oil go unchanged and the gutters uncleaned. And believe me, there’s plenty more material where that came from.
If you wanted, you could easily tell the story of my life with enough evidence to prove that I’m a disappointingly indolent underachiever, who’s never realized the great promise predicted for his life. (But you wouldn’t be especially original, since I’ve produced, directed, and screened that particular story thousands of times in the silent darkness as I stare at the ceiling.)
But, if you were so inclined, you might pore over the many experiences of my life and tell a completely different story, using a different narrative framework. You could also portray my life as a case of “the late bloomer,” who finally figured out how to work hard enough to begin to fulfill some of that promise. You could pull out incidents from my life that demonstrated a continuing commitment to overcoming procrastination to do the work some people always thought I had it in me to do. You could probably mine enough plot points from my academic, professional, and writing life to draw a picture of a person driven, despite the many flaws, to do interesting work.
So, if you were so inclined, you could tell the story of my life from the perspective of the underdog plot, in which an overmatched protagonist faces daunting odds and prevails. I’ve edited that story too … though, I must admit, with much less frequency.
Depending on how you edited my life I could be cast as the attentive husband and father or the self-absorbed careerist. You might be convinced to shape the narrative with me as a satirist seeking moral truth or as a sarcastic, self-righteous know-it-all . Committed liberal cheerleader or uncritical liberal shill. Good friend or selfish turd.
The point is, you could tell my life’s story from a number of different perspectives, and each of them would have some grain of truth.
But here’s the thing, the plot lines of our own lives we choose to rehearse for ourselves over and over again matter. In fact, the stories we tell ourselves determine, to a large extent, how we act, what we choose to give our attention to, how we envision our goals and projects, and what kinds of things we value. The more I tell myself the story of my life as an underachieving failure, for example, the more I come to identify myself that way. And when I identify myself that way, the more I will live my life so that it aligns with my life story.
None of this so far is particularly profound. That’s why we try to make certain that children have healthy self-esteems, instead of destructive ones.
But what I often find lacking in accounts relating to behavior/emotional health and self-image is the real agency each of us retain in telling our own stories to ourselves.
What do I mean?
In order to tell any coherent story, one needs to make strategic decisions about focus. Each of us have this huge inventory of life experiences from which to draw in support of the thesis we set out to prove about who we are. Generally speaking, the choosing of which experiences to focus on isn’t a conscious decision—which is a problem. Most of us are constantly rehearsing a play from a script that we didn’t choose, but that was chosen for us—either by our parents, or our siblings, or our friends, or that horrible boss we had at our first real job, or from the advertising folks who are constantly trying to convince us how incomplete we are, or from that mean kid in high school who called us fat, or ugly, or stupid.
Having absorbed the narrative contours, our internal editor goes to work finding images and experiences from which to draw, cutting and pasting them all together into a personal narrative. The resulting pastiche is true in that most all the episodes probably happened; but it’s false in that the story that gets told, which asserts itself as a comprehensive survey of our lives and personality, is skillfully edited so that it’s a self-reinforcing narrative that only partially depicts reality.
But the problem—without getting all “Dr. Phil”—is that we tend to believe the negative narratives are definitive, and that it’s somehow impossible to offer up counter-narratives. However, if we were to take a bit of time and expend the energy, I suspect that most of us could consciously compose an alternative narrative, which would tell the exact opposite story—one that would also be true, only more positive.
So, here’s the thing: we have a choice about what story we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves. The question isn’t, Will I rehearse the narrative of my life? But which narrative will I rehearse? Will I have a hand in shaping it? Or will I let it be shaped for me?
It makes a difference which story I tell myself.
Congregations also have stories they tell themselves. They too choose from a deep reservoir of experiences to edit a narrative. And guess what? Congregations, especially those in need of transformation, are just as prone to retelling the negative story, the one where the pews used to be full, where the membership once boasted important people in the community, where they used to be important players in the cultural game—all of which success gave way over the years to a panic-inducing fear of the future. Somewhere over the past fifty years the bottom fell out for many congregations, and the only story they have left to tell is one of decline, depression, and irrelevance.
But there are other stories these congregations could tell about themselves if they put their minds to it, aren’t there? What if these congregations edited their stories to include:
- the community they’ve fostered among folks the rest of society doesn’t have much use for
- the hands of the sick and the dying they’ve held
- the unpopular stands they’ve taken in support of justice
- the number of people who’ve been taught how to pray and sing
- the ways people have learned how to love and forgive in a world that often understands neither very well
- the hungry who’ve been fed, the homeless who’ve been sheltered, the outsiders who’ve been welcomed
What if dying congregations told those stories as the defining narratives of the life of a faith community?
What if struggling congregations made a conscious decision to quit telling the story of failure as though it were the “true” story?
What if congregations in distress chose to tell a new story?
A new story might not fix everything that’s wrong. But the primary purpose of telling our stories isn’t to repair ourselves. The reason we tell these stories to ourselves, at least in the finest sense, is to remind ourselves of who we have it in us at our best to be—to help us find the strength necessary to be our best selves when the pressure always seems to go in the opposite direction.
It’s your life. Give yourself a break, and tell the story of it in a way that makes the angels smile.