Humans love a good story. Though at times I feel like I have the memory of a 55-year-old brain in a 26-year-old body, even I can remember stories told me from years ago. Scout camp, sixth grade story time, family reunions—you name it—the stories remain with me, and in striking detail.
Great life teachers—at least the ones I’ve encountered—generally teach via analogy, constantly using stories to reinforce the principles of which they instruct. Within organizations, stories of leaders past and present reinforce the values and mission of a company or brand. The “started out in her basement” or “first played in his garage” stories capture the very fabric of the American entrepreneurial spirit, and nearly every political campaign advertisement I’ve ever seen includes something like “I grew up sweeping the floors of my father’s small business.”
We love stories, especially relatable ones.
Yet stories have a problem: not just one, but many. Stories truly are a great platform for teaching and learning, but stories can often mislead the learner (or the teacher) away from that which truly represents the greatness of the human experience.
After all, isn’t it absurd to think that we can capture the entirety of an individual’s struggle in a two-hour film or 200-page novel?
Novels can’t capture minutes upon minutes and months upon months of patience, boredom, struggle, reconciliation, or countless other experiences through which people must go in order to achieve whatever it is we hold them up for.
But perhaps brevity isn’t that big of an issue. After all, we can’t live others’ lives over and over just to learn what they learned. We have our own life to live. Perhaps the bigger issue isn’t the telling of someone else’s story, it’s the subjection of our own life to a story.
I know many people who are constantly seeking a narrative—which don’t get me wrong, is a very empowering thing. But not everything in life is or has to be linked to a greater arc, as if we are the protagonist—the hero—of some story.
First off, what if we mistakenly cast ourselves the hero, when in truth we are to play the role of many a supporting character to the other heroes of our lives?
Or second, what if our narrative is forced or arbitrary? What if we are subjecting ourselves to all kinds of experiences in the name of a narrative that doesn’t or shouldn’t have to be?
As a young Mormon missionary, I entered my two-year service period with the “he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store” narrative engrained in my brain, seeing myself the central character in the drama of good versus evil, of happiness versus torment, or heaven versus hell. And believe me, looking back it certainly feels like those two years were a story—an aside from my usual life, one that has taken me several years to graft into the normal fabric of my life. In my mind I went into it as if playing a character, yet over many months that mystic feeling vanished as the realities of people’s real lives that I was often interrupting became tangible to me.
I certainly acknowledge I went into the experience for mixed reasons and with a starry-eyed naivete, not so much in my convictions as in my perception of the world around me as a name-tag wearer.
Then when I returned home, in a day my language shifted to “when I was a missionary,” an odd transition that felt at times like whiplash. My mission still feels like a dream sometimes—as if it really was a story being told me.
I share this not to criticize the Mormon missionary program or my own experience with it. I point out a lesson that I’m continuing to learn—that life isn’t a story, it is real. I’m not here to play a role, but to have responsibilities, and those responsibilities change every day depending on my environment and the people with whom I come in contact. Responsibilities don’t end at the end of a chapter. If there are and ever were chapters in our “story,” we never quite know when the next chapter will begin or end.
Why? Because we don’t know what the future holds. We can have a hunch or take a guess, but ultimately we don’t know what comes tomorrow or the next day or the next week. Ascribing a narrative requires a beginning, a climax and an ending. For all we know, though, we could always be living in the climax or at the end of the story.
Rather than subject ourselves to a story or a character, as if we have the power to write our own story as we like it, I’d prefer to make my own decisions based on what feels right, regardless of how it feels in the greater arc of our self-inflated heroic epic.
But what about my purpose? What about God’s plan for me?
God has a plan, and undoubtedly we are a part of it—we live it every day. But God authors faith, not fable, and builds character, not characters. Speaking for myself, I worried for a long time whether I was doing exactly as God wanted me to do, as if there was a script I was supposed to follow.
The beauty of life is that it’s unscripted. It’s not a story in the traditional sense—it’s not even a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s much more dynamic, much more customary, and much more organic than that.
Thus I tell myself to stop worrying about fitting a story. I tell myself to stop comparing my existence to someone else’s biography. I tell myself to enjoy the moment, do what seems to be right in God’s eyes and in my own, and appreciate the diversity of experiences that make up my life. I have a long way to go with this, but I believe the tapestry of my life will be threaded with greater uniqueness and intentionality in each weave than otherwise.
Or so the story goes.
To read “Lost in the narrative, part two,” click here.