I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative again lately. Partly this is because I’ve been in a run of excellent novels. Partly it’s because of the ‘Fiction as a Sacred Text’ practice from last week. But also, particularly this week, a number of books, podcasts, and other media (particularly the truly remarkable Nanette) have in one way or another talked about the importance of owning your story. So, unsurprisingly I’ve been thinking about my own journey of owning my story after the events that caused me to reboot my life eight years ago.
I have long been captivated by the concept of the narrative structure of identity, the idea that we, intentionally or subconsciously, craft the details of our lives into a coherent story that forms the basis of our identity. And so, one of the most difficult side-effects of the crisis that changed everything for me was that I no longer had a story. It was as though thirty years of my life had been undone in the course of one year, and, in some ways, in the course of one Lent. A vast chasm separated my present from my past and I had no clue if it was even possible to bridge the gap. I could only see tragedy, loss, and embarrassment in the shambles of my story and of my life.
The first light into this darkness came on a date, of all places, about a year after my starting over. To this day it remains in a lot of ways the best date I’ve ever had. The young man in question, whom I’ll call Erik, was truly one of the most interesting people I have met. He was a couple years younger than me and everything about him oozed ‘Vancouver Island’, right down to the mussed hair, Cowichan sweater and thick wool socks. He was blond, bearded, and blue-eyed, short but sturdily built; really, he looked like the platonic ideal of a Viking at seventy-five percent scale. We met for breakfast one Saturday morning, and while we ate, he began to tell his story. His story couldn’t have been more different from mine: He came out at fifteen and was the most popular guy in school; he graduated early and traveled the world when he was barely seventeen, paying his way working odd jobs under the table. By age thirty he had made and lost fortunes and had battled addiction and mental illness. I could barely keep up.
Then it was my turn.
Compared to his life and his battles, mine felt so limited and pathetic. But, Erik had been so open with his own story, I felt I had not choice but to reciprocate. So, I swallowed hard and started in on my story. I told him of the vision I had had for my life, the choices I had made for my faith, the sense of calling I had felt, and the pride I had in the life I had created. I told him of the depth of prayer and the all-surpassing beauty I had known. I told him of the sacrifices I had made, willingly and intentionally, and the life I had offered up to God with gratitude. And I told him of how it all fell apart. I told him of the abandonment, of the long lonely walks screaming at God to answer me. I told him of the sleepless nights, the sharp pains in my neck and shoulders, and the loss of appetite. And I told him of my rock bottom, utterly spent, weeping bitter tears into a beloved priest’s cassock. And then I told him of my first attempts to move on.
When I had finished, Erik was quiet. I was mortified at how he would respond. He simply shook his head, smiled, and then said, “Wow! What an adventure!”
I was floored. I didn’t know how to respond. Here I had shared my story from a place of deep pain and unresolved grief, and he had somehow transformed it into a grand adventure. As we continued to talk, he persisted, framing his questions and answers in such a way as to make me a hero and not the embarrassment I felt I was. And what’s more, I could see that, beyond the hyperbole, his version of the story was at least as true as mine. I wasn’t there yet, but Erik’s lifting up of my story ignited a spark inside me, a spark that I was at least able to tend and keep safe, even if I wasn’t ready yet for it to catch fire.
There was no great epiphany that followed. Just time, reflection, and lots of hard work. And of course, life continued to throw more in my direction, in both helpful and unhelpful ways. (The biggest curveball was the surprise resurrection of my Christian faith.) Even as time went on and I metabolized all of these experiences, I didn’t feel I could really own my story because it still felt like a work-in-progress, so much still felt unresolved. It’s only really been in the past couple years that I’ve felt I can honestly plant my flag proudly and say “This is my story,” without sorrow, bitterness, or embarrassment. In fact, I even like my story, and I like the man all those experiences have shaped me to be.
As it happened, there was no second date with Erik, as he was quickly called out of town. (Such is the dating game.) But, I ran into him in a cafe eighteen months or so later, just days before I set out on my move to Toronto. He eagerly suggested we grab a coffee soon and catch up, but of course, I was leaving town. I told him of my plans, and he beamed and said, “The adventure continues!”
I tell this story today because, while I agree with the wisdom that owning our story is important, I also know that it takes time and it’s a process. We develop coping mechanisms that do a good job of helping us to get through traumatic experiences — that’s what they’re there for — but can often freeze us where we are, or cause us to leave vital parts of ourselves behind. It can take time to thaw. It can take time to be strong enough to go back and pick up those lost pieces. (As Hannah Gadsby comments in the above mentioned Nanette, her coping mechanism, humour, only allowed her to see her trauma in terms of set up and punchline, rather than as a full narrative with a beginning, a middle, and, most importantly, and ending.) And we all deserve the opportunity to take the time we need to do that. Owning our story isn’t a one-time thing. It isn’t simply a matter of putting on a happy face mask and saying “Everything happens for a reason.” To really do it takes time, honesty, and a lot of vulnerability. But hopefully, along the way, people will pop into our lives, even just for a morning, who, like Erik, can see the goodness, beauty, and adventure in our stories even if we can’t yet.