Imagine you are being interviewed by a professional biographer. What would you say about your life? Is your story a heroic journey, romance, tragedy or comedy? Or combination?
The Bible is a book of stories. For example, Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4: 4-26). Notice how this encounter is all about her story: the woman is a social outcast having to come to the well in the heat of the day and having no companions. Against convention, Jesus takes the initiative and talks to a Samaritan woman – something no good Jew would allow himself to do. The reason for her isolation comes out when Jesus asked her to go get her husband, but she said that she has no husband, and Jesus responds, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.” If this woman was to have a life story prior to meeting Jesus, what do you think it would be? It would certainly include relationship failure and becoming a social pariah.
To be human is to tell stories. Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, once observed that “God made humans because he loved stories”. I thought about a recent experience.
I was at a coffee shop a few weeks ago having coffee with someone I was interviewing for a biography. There was a homeless person at the next table, obviously unkempt. After he left a shop assistant came with a spray bottle and disinfected everything he touched. She gave us an apology.
This was puzzling. I can tell the story to get a sense of meaning, as we all do. I did not need an apology. I approved of the café serving homeless people. It must have been tempting to send them away or offer only take-away. It felt an inclusive place to be.
As we get older we have more stories to tell. Indeed, our identity is made up of the stories we tell ourselves. In a series of sermons, I would like to encourage you to think about your stories. The goal is to develop a healing story that becomes spiritually integrated with our ‘best self’.
Compare these two end-of-life stories:
Samuel was a “flower child” of the 1960s, but when the party ended he was a heroin addict. He lived a desperately unhappy life, from early alcohol abuse in his adolescence to hard drugs a few years later. He died from an overdose in his mid-fifties.
Clearly, this is an unhappy story. But it also might be thought of as a “thin story”, a life lived but not developed in a rich way.
Frances served for 20 years as a medical missionary. She returned to the Australia with a health crisis. She said to a pastoral care worker at the hospital, “I can look back on a wonderful life. I was the only doctor in a vast area. Naturally, I was ‘run off my feet’ at times, and I was often short of medical supplies, but I know I made a huge difference. I’m satisfied. Now I’m happy for Jesus to call me home.”
Each stage of life brings its own goals. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and popular spiritual writer, contrasted the first half of life being about building an identity, usually with achievements, family, relationships, friends, community, and financial security. This builds a container, and the second half of life is devoted to finding something to put in it! The second half of life provides the maturity to see the spiritual implications and we can do this though understanding our stories. We can tell a richer, more reflective, ‘thicker’ story.
When I was a research academic I wrote a book The Storied Self (Lexington, 2019) in which I advanced the following: We are multi-storied, and each story contributes depth to a more nuanced yet integrated and comprehensive life story. The first story is the hidden story before we acquire language. There are also, as we will see, many other stories: the lazy story, the trauma story, the messy story, the body story, the problem story, the subversive story, and the dark story. The spiritual dimension is acknowledged in the God story. This leads to a new and exciting potential to re-author the life story.
Can we challenge ourselves to tell a deep story? I would suggest the following:
- Tell our story. Look for insights, points of connection.
- Test the validity of the story.
- Integrate the story into our sense of self.
- Re-author: how does this story need to change to become a healthy story?
- Perform or live out the new story.
A deep story is reflective, self-aware, insightful, integrative and sometimes open to glimmers of transcendence. I will illustrate these principles with the following story.
Maggie moved into an apartment in an eldercare facility. She had to struggle to leave her garden, which had been the focus of much of her life. She could not hide her grief and was often in tears. She was glad to see a chaplain. They talked for a long time, and Maggie admitted, “I’ve never felt OK about myself. I’ve always believed that I’m worthless. The only thing I ever achieved was my garden, and I had to leave that!”
The chaplain helped her tell her story and become aware of why she had such low self-esteem. They discussed what she might use to evaluate her life. She knew that she was valued by her adult children for more than her skills in gardening and that they would continue to love her in the absence of her garden. She was able to reconsider the basis of her worth.
Maggie needed to ask “What’s true about me?” Essentially, “Am I worthless?”
Maggie became aware of how her mother’s negative messages hurt her self-esteem, “I was too young to know any better.” But in her conversations with the chaplain, she began to listen to later messages, from her own children and others, that contradicted her sense of being worthless. “I guess that I realized that my mother shouldn’t have the only say on whether I was valuable as a person!”
Maggie also talked to the chaplain about some of the disappointments in her life. Her husband, Tom, was “abusive—he didn’t treat me well. Eventually he left and didn’t support our children.” She came to accept such experiences as “part of life, I suppose. I still have wonderful children.”
Maggie wanted to make some new friends. “Many of my friends have either died or moved to be closer to family members. Lately, I’ve felt lonely. I never saw myself as a particularly social person but now I can be different. I intend to join some of the social groups at the facility. One of the interest groups visits local gardens. I’d enjoy that.” Maggie also started attending worship services led by the chaplaincy team.
There was a group that organized fundraising activities for overseas missions. Maggie joined the group: “I can bake cakes to sell.” She also took over in the collection and sorting of postage stamps for bulk sale: “We’ve raised a few hundred dollars so far this year.”
The good news is that we do not have to wait until the-end-of-life to tell our stories and reflect on meaning. We can begin today if this is a new idea.
Frederick Buechner expressed the insight that:
The voyage into the self is long and dark and full of peril, but I believe it is a voyage that all of us will have to make before we are through. Either we climb down into the abyss willingly with our eyes open, or we risk falling into it with our eyes closed.[i]
[i] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, 1969), 23.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce A Stevens is a clinical psychologist and supply minister at GUC.