What story will you tell?
Trinity Library in Ireland… It took my breath away to imagine all the stories, lives, and ideas contained in this room.
I started journaling on my 8th birthday. I remember that day because we were staying at a friends home near the beach, and it was therefore a day full of strange and wonderful experiences for an eight year old: I caught a crab, one of the kids in the home made me a pancake in the shape of a “J” especially for me, and my mother gave me a cloth journal with embroidered flowers covered in brightly colored beads. I remember sitting at the kitchen nook table, my short legs hanging off the stool, and for the first time, feeling the thrill of the pen running along the clean pages… it was love.
I have since completed about 12 journals. Over the summer I took time to read through some of the journals, and was particularly delighted to find I still had my beloved, beaded, first journal. As I read, I had a good laugh at my youngster self, and was quite amused by my interspersed illustrations of family members, creative spelling of words and affinity for scattering punctuation haphazardly (a habit I have still not entirely outgrown.) My young self’s understanding of the calendar also seems to have been somewhat skewed as I found an entry dated “May 40th.” The pages were filled with accounts of my days, heartfelt attempts at poetry, and the occasional passionate entry of grievances regarding my brothers having hit me in the head with a frisbee or having insisted on eating my bread crusts. I read and laughed, but was particularly struck by that very first entry which ended like this:
“… I know Joel didn’t mean to hit me in the head with the frisbee, so I’ve forgiven him. Oh, Journal! I do not yet know what the future holds, but I know God has great things. And he will use me. How exciting. Off to eat cake.”
There was something both humorous and profound in my passionate little entry. Humorous because of my tenacious surety that I was God’s gift to the world, but profound when I thought of the implications of the story I was telling myself as a little girl.
I was quick to forgive, quick to feel, and quick to imagine. I had an unquenchable sense of the adventure of life and my part in it. And yet, I also had a sense of my smallness and my dependence upon God. I wrote with an expectancy that held its breath waiting for the tomorrow God would bring to me. I often wish I could talk to my younger self and ask for advice.
I thought of it in light of journal entries from the more angsty years of my early teenhood. Somewhere in between growing up and growing foolish, my entries began to lose that shameless trust and confidence in something bigger than myself. My journal entries often became less “I know not what lies ahead” and more “I know I have failed.” They became less about destiny and design and more about more about my foibles and flaws. My descriptions became less colorful, my forgiveness less generous. When I wrote of the future, it was less about the sweeping grandeur of the unknown adventure of faith I dreamed of as a child, and more of the safe and small realm of desires and disappointments… I began to tell my story differently.
In my very first proper communications class, I stumbled upon the idea of self narration in a textbook on interpersonal communication (by Julia Wood.) People tell stories to make sense of their lives, and the author points out that we all have a specific way of narrating our lives to ourselves and others. We are all in the business of story telling. Journals are particularly telling in this, but just think of how people respond when you ask them about their day. Immediately, people launch into storytelling, making their days, even the humdrum ones, daring adventures, woeful happenings, or delightful tales. People talk of their days with a narrative rhythm, highs and lows intermingled with colorful description and emotion. Often we have heroes and villains, quests and curses, victories and defeats, love and tension. Everyone tells their story differently.
Over years of practice, people develop a rhythm, vocabulary, style, voice and mood to their narration. And, slowly, as we narrate our lives, our very own narration begins to shape us.
As I study in Oxford, this reality is ever before me, and has made me realize that the way we tell stories is not nuetral. The drive to tell stories here is ineffable. We tell stories about history, philosophy, religion.. Lord of Rings… Volumes of History… plays…. poems…. Stories are everywhere. Stories serve to help us interpret the world. Sometimes stories oppress, sometimes they liberate, sometimes they open doors into worlds unknown. There is a reason that the brightest minds in the world often put their ideas in novels… Stories are powerful.
But how do we tell the right story of our lives. I have found that at some points in my life, I have encoutered events that I didn’t know how to interpret; parts of my life that are a part of my story, but a part I don’t know how to tell. How do you tell the story of a grief that hasn’t resolved? A relationship you wish you could save? Surely these things can’t be simply resolved by retelling them in a positive light, or by ignoring them altogether.
The Psalms are peppered with self narration. So often the Psalmists writes “find rest my soul” (Psalm 62:5) or “why, my soul are you disquieted within me” (Psalm 43:5).The Psalmist dig and get their fingers dirty to find the right story. They ask God if He is really there and faithful, remind themselves that he is, and let the story of God’s faithfulness inform their story. The element of narrative is especially noticable in Psalms where the Psalmist recalls things God has done in the past, reminding himself that he is still a descendent of that story. The Psalmist talks to himself and God, seeking to make His story the truest it can be. Numerous times the Psalmists write “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story!” (Psalm 107:2).
This morning, as I sleepily paged through my new journal, I felt God gently set my mind to wondering “What story do I tell myself and others now? How do I narrate my life?” Do I narrate as the defeated victim? Or do I tell a story in which I am able to cop out of responsibility? And how do I let God shape the parts of my story I don’t know how to tell?
This a thought I haven’t finished thinking, and a lesson I haven’t finished learning, but this week I stumbled upon a thought that has helped me in my story telling. I have been reading The Great Divorce for my tutorial, and at one point in the story, the guide to the main character says to the main character,
“They say of some temporal suffering “no future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, one attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory… the good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.” (The Great Divorce, Lewis.)
Part of telling our story is learning to view it in the light of the Kingdom– in the light of eternity. I belong to a God who is making all things new. As I live, I must remember to tell my story in light of that greater story. The story that no matter what, I am God’s child (Galatians 3:26), being formed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), imperfect and alway loved (Romans 5:6-8), empowered to do good works by His grace (Romans 6), a part of a Kingdom story that is not yet completed (Hebrews 12), destined for glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). And the way I begin to fully understand that story is by reading scripture and letting it’s truths sink into my soul and shape it. As God’s story seeps into the corners of my soul, I begin to see my life in the light of the Kingdom; God’s story changes my narration, and that narration changes me.
But narrations are fluid things, and life sometimes seems exasperatingly ordinary. Life twists and turns, and my story continues. Every morning, I find myself asking God to remind me of my story again, asking to glimpse the glory that I will someday understand in it. Like Lucy in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader I find myself desiring to read the wonderful story that never ends.
But for the moment, I don’t know the end of the story, and I find myself mysteriously invited by God to join with Him in storytelling. And you are invited too.
What Story will you tell?
Joy Clarkson is a featured columnist and the Director of Marketing at Humane Pursuits. She is a graduate of Biola University, and also spent time as a visiting student at Oxford University studying C.S. Lewis, Literature, and Theology. Her days are spent helping people and companies tell their stories well, pondering, writing, singing, and drinking too much Yorkshire Gold tea.