The Messy Middle (Part II of The Stories of our Lives)

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the complications involved in telling the stories of our lives. I focused particularly on the problems with endings — how ending them too soon can cause us to misunderstand our stories, and how not ending them at all can leave us stuck in the past or paralyzed like a computer with too many applications running. So the question becomes, how do we actually live with both of these truths about our storytelling?

One approach would be to reject stories altogether. Since our stories are so problematic, why not just give up on the idea of them completely and simply accept the events of our lives as they come without trying to make meaning of them? This is a wise and ancient approach that is closely associated with the Buddhist tradition. Despite this solid pedigree, I don’t like this approach, mostly because I don’t think it’s possible. To me it’s like saying that, just because our innate tendency to identify faces sometimes causes us to see faces on trees or pieces of toast, we should reject the idea of faces altogether. We are meaning-making creatures; that’s just how we’re wired, and stories are one of the main ways we make meaning. To reject that would make us less human, less who we are. And moreover, because we are storytellers by nature, denying stories altogether would only push them into the Shadow. At least if we are intentional about the stories we tell, we won’t find ourselves dominated by stories hidden from our awareness.

An example of this sort of hidden story is really what inspired the reflections that led to me writing these two posts. While reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed I realized that, as much as I could sympathize with the twists and turns of her life, I also felt a little embarrassed and ashamed for her. This sent off the warning bells inside me, because why on earth would I feel embarrassed for a courageous woman who has followed life into unexpected places? I realized upon reflection that her story was triggering my own embarrassment and shame for the unexpected twists my own life has taken and for all the ‘false’ stories I’ve told about myself. Thankfully, simply identifying this hidden story largely disarmed it.

So, to get back to the matter at hand, I don’t like the idea of dropping the idea of stories altogether. But at the same time, there’s a lot of wisdom that lies behind this approach. Buddhist teaching is basically all about letting go of the things we cling to. (Jesus has a lot to say about this too.) With this in mind, the problem isn’t the stories, but our attachment to them. Maybe this is the key to moving forward: We need to tell our stories and make meaning from our lives, while being willing to let go of them when they no longer benefit us, or when more data presents us with a richer, more complicated understanding of things. Stories aren’t necessarily true or false; but what they need to be to be healthy stories, is provisional. We need the humility to realize that as long as we’re in life’s messy middle, no story we tell is ever going to be set in stone, no matter how true or beautiful it may be. (And that’s not only okay, but is even good.)

Looking back at all the examples in the last post, this really stands out to me as true. The story the baseball player told wasn’t wrong exactly — I’m sure Jesus saved him from many things and that his faith gave the last years of his life comfort and meaning — but it was partial and premature. Similarly, Glennon Doyle is able to pull out the through lines of her life, showing the truth of the stories she told in her first two memoirs, even as they take on a different shading because of what happened next in her life.

The same can be said about the examples from my own life. The evangelical faith I came to in my late teens really did give me a new life and save me from drowning in my darkness; but ultimately, it was too shallow to sustain me for long. The Orthodox faith that came next was rich and beautiful, a deep well of the freshest water that my heart been thirsting for; but ultimately, it was not a place where I could stay for ever — it was a beautiful, lush oasis, but not my home. My postulancy for ordination brought genuine healing and wholeness to something that had been an open wound in my life; but the way it brought it to completion was to allow me to close the door, rather than to walk through it. The endings I had imagined were not really the end. And that’s okay. It’s only a problem if I were to cling to them.

Remembering that “it ain’t over till it’s over” and that we’re still in life’s messy middle as long as we can see open road ahead of us can also help us better manage those stories that seem to refuse to end. The big question we need to ask is whether or not the lingering story is ready to end — Not whether we‘re ready for it to end, but whether the story itself is actually over. Some stories — like the one Hannah Gadsby tells in Nanette — are well past time to be concluded. They are ready for their “The End” whenever we are willing to type the words, hit save, and close the window. But other stories — and probably many of them — simply aren’t ready to end yet. And I think this is the second reason why I’m reluctant these days to write from my own experiences: No matter how badly I may want to wrap up these stories, they don’t have endings. Yet. I’m still in the middle of them, the messy middle where the resolution is uncertain, and any resolution I could force would seem pretty unsatisfying. Imagine if Abraham was trying to end his story in the long years before Isaac was born. Or if the Gospels were written in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These would be unsatisfying stories. Thankfully for all of us, those stories weren’t over yet.

And, neither are ours. We don’t know what the future is going to bring. We have no idea how our stories are going to end, and that’s true whether we have easy endings at our disposal right now or whether we’re still deeply aware of being in the messy middle, without satisfying endings anywhere in sight. For me, remembering this transforms the energy surrounding these stories completely. Whereas when I forget this, they feel draining and even a little threatening (words like ‘gaping,’ ‘unending,’ and ‘foreboding’ come to mind), remembering that I’m still in the middle (messy as it is) gives them feelings of spaciousness and even excitement (associated with words like ‘open’, ‘possible,’ and ‘adventurous’). It frees me to make meaning from the story so far without feeling like that meaning closes the door on the possibility for the story to have a different, more satisfying ending than what it would now.

And so, we can tell our stories, understanding that they are all to some extent “to be continued.”

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