Musings: Stories we tell ourselves

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Children are natural storytellers. Leave them alone, with nothing but nature around them, and they will invent games, adventures, mysteries, intrigues. In short, they will tell a story. They will become a character and wrap a tale around the character. They will interact with and tell their story alongside those of whoever they happen to be around. “Let’s play _________” becomes the rallying cry and the story is off, being told, retold, and reinvented. 

When we lived in Kentucky during my seminary days, we were surrounded by children in the little student village where we lived. Next door to us, were a couple and their children who were close to the same age as our children. Their youngest was also a boy and my son saw him as a sort of big brother. He and his surrogate big brother created many of these stories; stories where Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were actually a father and son duo who saved the galaxy or where the Avengers stopped and lunch at the local Mexican restaurant. 

If you think back to your childhood, I’m sure you too will find memories like these. But then we become adults and have to live in the real world, right? Story time is for children and lives only in childhood memory, doesn’t it? Not exactly. As adults we continue to tell ourselves stories, but they are more nuanced, and with greater subtlety. The stories we tell our closer to our own lives, bearing a greater resemblance to reality. They are, however, still stories. 

Take for instance a simple trip to the grocery store. As we travel, we watch the way people around us drive. Their actions, their reactions to others, their facial expressions all become part of a story we create about them. Perhaps you are less likely to give that sort of attention to the people around you and pay closer attention to the road. Perhaps when you get to the store, you begin your story telling as you get groceries. The man with the pajamas becomes a lazy person, a drug addict, white trash. The woman in the nice blouse and slacks is probably a well off professional or wife of a professional. And then we’re off, the story in our mind begins to write itself, heedless of the actual truth that the man may be a millionaire who doesn’t care about appearances and the woman struggling under a mountain of debt and alcoholism. 

In the same way we tell ourselves these stories about others, we tell ourselves stories about our faith. I think these are some of the most inventive stories we tell because we are trying to define our place in the journey of faith we are taking. Sometimes we are honest with ourselves and see ourselves as we are. Sometimes we perform a sort of mental gymnastics to allow ourselves to continue expressing faith in a way that is comfortable but not really true to the Way of Jesus. We sometimes create a version of the story that fits our personal, political, and preferred way of life. We do this, I think, because the Jesus Way calls us to a high standard. It’s not just a change prayer, Sunday attendance, and being more or less nice. It’s often a demanding, arduous journey, calling us to be more than thought ourselves capable of being. It is recognizing the truth of Jesus’ saying, “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention” (Matthew 7:13-14 MSB)

The questions become, I think, what story are you telling and what story are you living?

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