The Stories of our Lives

As regular readers here will know, I think and care a lot about the idea of story. And they will also know that the story of my life so far has had a lot of twists and turns.

One of the most common reactions people have when they hear my story is to say, “Wow. You should write a memoir.” It’s a funny thing because I’ve kept a blog — perhaps the only medium to rival memoir in its navel-gazing potential — more-or-less regularly for fifteen years now. And, like many people who love to write, I definitely see my life in narrative chunks — in chapters and scenes, with foreshadowing, themes and symbolism. Moreover, my outlook as been shaped by the fields of narrative theology and narrative psychology, which highlight the importance of story-making for human identity. And yet, still, the idea of writing memoir, or just from my life more generally, doesn’t sit right with me these days. In fact, of all the incarnations of my blog over the years, this one is by far the least confessional and personal. This is true despite the fact that I know readers respond more positively to personal writing and so I have consciously tried over the past year or so to draw more from my experiences and stories. (With little success.)

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about why this may be. I think part of it is simply the structure of story itself. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of these, endings are particularly challenging for writing about our own lives.

The first side of this is that mining our life for meaningful stories can lead us to rush prematurely into endings: Often, what we think is the end of a story is actually not the end at all.

I first came to understand this in junior high school. My well-meaning soon-to-be brother-in-law, seeing me adrift (and really who among us wasn’t adrift in junior high school), asked me to listen to the testimony of a baseball player whose faith in Jesus had miraculously cured him of his addiction to hard drugs. It was a powerful witness, but I remember even while listening to it at that young age wondering what would happen to his story should he fall back into addiction. His story was too tidy to seem real. Sure enough, later that year he was suspended again for substance abuse. Sadly, he died about a decade later in a car accident, with drugs in his system.

This isn’t a criticism of him (though it is perhaps a criticism of the testimony culture within evangelical Christianity that rushed him to a ‘victory in Christ’ narrative that wasn’t fully cooked yet), but it is indicative of the nature of stories told too soon. In his case, framing his struggle with addiction in terms of Christ’s victory in his life was likely even counter-productive, causing him to see his addiction as a thing that was over rather than a clear and present danger, something that Christ was walking alongside him in daily. This is a warning for everyone who tells stories. Every fairy tale ending that ends with a wedding skips over the very important detail that a wedding is the beginning of the real story. Or, every history book that places the end of the First World War in 1919 ignores that our geopolitical landscape is still feeling its aftershocks over a century later. Stories have a way of not being over when we want them to be.

In this way, memoir often seems to give the events of our lives a finality they don’t actually have. We can see this in the lives of some popular memoirists today. Glennon Doyle, for example, wrote her first memoir about how marriage and motherhood saved her from a lifetime of addiction and self-harm. But this story of the power of traditional family values was undercut when her husband told her that he’d cheated on her. And so, she wrote a second memoir, telling the story of how she fought to save her marriage. But then, just as the book tour began, she had one of those see-someone-from-across-a-crowded-room-and-have-your-life-change-forever moments that left the story she had told in this book in tatters. And so, she has now written a third memoir (the excellent Untamed), which tells the story of how leaving her husband and starting a new life with her wife Abby allowed her to throw off the shackles of social expectation and actually be who she is. A similar sort of narrative whiplash can be seen in the recent memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert. First, she wrote of discovering herself and discovering love in the process. Then, she wrote about the nature of commitment as she recounted how she and her husband struggled to navigate the immigration system to be together. And most recently, she wrote about how she ended that marriage in order to make a life with her best friend as she died. None of the endings they had imagined to give meaning to their lives were actually endings.

This shouldn’t be taken in any way as a criticism of these women; it takes incredible strength and courage to put one’s life out in public — especially when the stories might open one up to ridicule, as the various twists and turns in their lives have. It would have been far easier for both of them to rest on their earlier successes and not risk ‘undoing’ them by continuing to tell their story through the plot twists. These are brave women who should be applauded for their honesty and vulnerability. But beyond their bravery, I’m not criticizing them for the dramatic turns their stories have taken, because I can relate to them and their false endings.

In my early twenties, I could have written a great story about how “meeting Jesus again for the first time” within evangelical Christianity gave me a new beginning in life as a teen. But soon I was in a spiritual crisis that led to dramatic changes in my life. At the start of 2010, I could have written a convincing narrative about how the deepest yearnings of my heart had found their home in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I would never have thought that just sixteen months later, I would be on the outside of any church and in a place of complete spiritual desolation. In 2016, I could have written (and did write!) about how my soon-to-be ordination to the sacramental priesthood was going to reaffirm pieces of my identity and vocation I had thought lost for ever. But by October 2017, I knew something was deeply wrong and I put a halt to my ordination process.

Oops.

As my story and the stories of Glennon Doyle and Liz Gilbert and that baseball player show, life — for everyone — is so much more complicated and interesting than simple beginnings, middles, and endings.

And so, ending our stories too soon can cause problems. But, there’s an equally big problem, I think, if we don’t give the stories of our lives proper endings at all. Not allowing our stories to end can keep us stuck in narratives we’re ready to move on from. This was demonstrated powerfully by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, in her famous set Nanette. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it (and please do see it), but she relates how her comedy career, which requires her to see her life through the lens of set-ups and punchlines, has prevented her from ending some traumatic episodes of her life.

As much as I can relate to the false endings in Glennon Doyle and Elizabeth Gilbert’s stories, I can also relate to Hannah Gadsby’s feeling of being haunted by open-ended stories. Sometimes it feels like I have a dozen files open in my mental word processor, all taking up memory and processing space, all demanding attention, all needing an ending. And it’s exhausting. Stories need endings. Things in our lives need to be put to bed to give us space for what’s new. And, in my experience at least, the stories that we can’t resolve are the ones that become those unhelpful internal narratives and automatic negative thoughts that are so problematic — they’re the stories that often involve words like ‘never’ and ‘always’, the stories we need to let go of when we “feel the feeling and drop the story.”

And so, if ending a story too soon opens us up to closing, and not ending them at all can leave us stuck in the past, where does that leave us?

This has gotten unexpectedly long and I want to give these reflections space to breathe, so I’ll pick up on this, and hopefully suggest some ways forward, tomorrow.

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