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Allison Althoff
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Natalie Lederhouse
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August 1, 2011

A Narrative Problem

Our stories can define us in both good ways and bad. Too often I was choosing the bad.

Not long ago, I found myself telling a new friend an old story.

It’s a pretty good story, as stories go. In it, I’m the wise, intrepid heroine who navigates an especially tricky matter of the heart with resilience and aplomb. Despite tragedy, heartache, and loss, I emerge on the other side a little sadder, but a lot stronger, with help from mother wit, some swinging jazz standards, and the occasional pint of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

At least that’s how I thought it sounded when I began.

About halfway through, I realized that something was wrong with my story.

It wasn’t that anything in the story was untrue. And I happen to believe that, along with good friends, mother wit, swinging jazz, and ice cream combine to provide an excellent cure for what ails you. I think, too, that my technique was pretty good. I shared the choicest details, pausing occasionally for effect, punctuating with the right amounts of wryly raised brow, ruefully shaken head, and “Girrrl, you won’t even believe this.”

No, the problem wasn’t with the story itself. The problem was that I was still telling this particular story, long after the events in question had transpired.

As I spoke, I realized that telling this story was an important narrative act—and not in a good way. By pulling this old story into my new friendship, I was allowing it to define me. I was giving it more space than it deserved. Without saying so, I was conveying to my friend—and rehearsing for myself—some very significant, and very uncomfortable ideas:

This story is one of the most important things you should know about me.
This story is what I believe about myself.
In some ways, I’m still living this story.

As I listened to myself, I didn’t sound wise and intrepid, but foolish and fearful. I didn’t sound stronger-if-sadder; instead, I just sounded stuck. In this particular case, my story, and my willingness to share it, revealed an incompletely healed heart—an unresolved narrative.

I believe strongly in the power of narrative. I believe that stories affect our minds and hearts in unique ways, and must be handled carefully. I decided to become a writer and communicator because I honestly believe that good stories change the world. In fact, I think that some of the biggest problems in our lives and the world can be traced to incorrect or poorly told stories. Even in this postmodern age, I believe in the idea of metanarratives, or master stories, that shape our thoughts and beliefs.

In the introduction to his book, Tell Me A Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, the author Daniel Taylor argues that we are our stories, and that those stories emerge from our desire to understand the meaning of our lives. Because of that, understanding the stories we believe, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves, is critical. “Knowing and embracing healthy stories [is] crucial to living rightly and well,” he writes. “If your present life story is broken or diseased, it can be made well. Or, if necessary, it can be replaced by a story that has a plot worth living.” In a later chapter, he adds, “The best cure for a broken story is another story.”

Remembering Taylor’s words helped me to reconsider the story I’d been telling my friend, and myself. I finished the tale, and I doubt my friend noticed that anything was wrong. Still, as I reflected on our conversation later, I decided not to tell it again soon without thinking and praying about it.

Over the next few weeks, I began to pray earnestly that God would remind me where he had entered this painful story, and that he would allow me to see it in the proper context of his work in my life. In my journal, I drew two plot pyramids: a false one that positioned the story in a climactic place in the narrative of my life, and a true one that positioned it as just one of many ups and downs in a long story of triumph and trial. As I consulted wise Christian friends, I determined to tell this particular story only in limited contexts where I knew it would be helpful, and only when I knew I was viewing it in a healthy way.

We tell stories, both good and bad, as a way to bond with one another, to share important insights into our hearts and lives, and to convey what’s deeply important to us. In fact, sharing a painful story can be deeply therapeutic, and part of God’s healing work in our lives.

So in some ways, my decision to refrain from speaking casually about this particular story is counterintuitive (and writing about not talking about it is strange!). I’m interested in your thoughts: How do you know when to share a story, and when to hold back? What principles have you discovered for discussing painful situations, and how do you discern when it may be helpful, or when it may result in more harm than good? When has sharing a story resulted in deep healing for you? What role do the stories you tell about yourself play in the way you view your life?

Related Tags: life, narrative, Relationships, sharing, story


I absolutely agree. What we believe about ourselves - i.e. the narratives we tell - affect our actions and our lives profoundly. (I work in an inner city ER and see how negative narratives are replayed over and over again).

I think it's important to perhaps view life as a multi-volume series. There are events/stories that were an important part of Book 1, but no longer need reference in Book 7 or 8 of the series. What are the relevant stories in THIS phase of life?

This is beautiful - thank you so much for sharing it. I'm stuck in a story at the moment and I like your plot-diagram approach...I will give it a try. For me, the issue/story of my femininity has changed in the telling over the years. I used to feel like I had to tell people how hopeless a woman I was (bad cook, no fashion sense, hate shopping, terrible house cleaner, all those stupid cliches which don't define women anyway!!!!) As I've journeyed on, I'm more and more comfortable in the fact that God made me a woman. I love beauty - in all different forms. I am a relationship person and I can talk and listen to friends for hours! I do cry a lot - when I'm happy and when I'm sad...and my heart is tender and fierce all at once. I don't feel like I have to prove my femininity to anyone any more and I don't feel I need to live up to all the cliches (I'm still a career woman who works too much and doesn't clean often enough!) but I've stopped trying to "get in first" and apologize for who I am before someone else gets to criticize me. The amazing thing? Other women have commented to me - "I'm not like you Kate - I'm not really a girly girl"...and a new story of healing begins:)

It's interesting you chose to address this phenomenon. I've had this thought before but in a periphery kind of way if that makes sense. Almost like that shadow you see out of the corner of your eye, the one that disappears when you turn to look at it but you never quite stop thinking about it, wondering what you saw. Thank you for articulating what I've been struggling to define myself. I am a talker (and desire to see my writing evolve)and enjoy stories (especially about me - problematic as well) - and I've found myself left with an uncomfortable feeling after relating a 'story' about myself - but unable to identify exactly why. I will now be more aware of the stories I tell...

LIfe and death is in the power of the tongue and my pastor said recently that when we speak those stories, we give life to them. I was convicted, in a good way, to be careful what I give life to.

Stories can be used to grow, mature and show us who and what we are made of. Yes some of them can be painful. I think the key to sharing is when those stories no longer hold painful memories, we can talk about them without retreating, getting upset or angry. We can share with others who are still in the process of knowing who they are and why they have been down certain paths as to how we went through the process and we are now able to stand strong. Share stories when it will bring healing to other's,. When we learn how to use the stories for our growth, we can in turn help others to see that it is possible to not be stuck but they can grow and move beyond those stories.
Trust God and allow Him to show you who and when to share. There are times that the best help and healing for moving forward is to share and get it out, use it as life's building blocks. God never leaves us or forsakes us, He will always have our back.

This was so interesting, because your telling of an old story reminded me of a story I used to tell. It was the story of a wrong done to me in the context of a romantic relationship that was ending in bitterness, a wrong I had all the more difficulty forgiving because the other person (for a time) saw it as right. A few years later, after months spent working on letting go of the anger, after an actual apology on the person's part and forgiveness on mine, and a good year or two to smooth over the past, I found myself telling the story to a new friend.

And I thought, is that what this guy I once loved has become in my life, the story of this thing he did to me? I say I've forgiven him, but if this is all I ever say about him--a description of one of his worst moments--and I say it over and over--have I really?

I don't quite remember when I last told this story or how I stopped telling it--if it was at that moment or later. I do know that I haven't told it in years. I'm fortunate in the stories that have happened to me more recently, and happiness (and new stories, like Taylor says) makes you forget; but I think that even if I hadn't been so blessed I would have needed to stop telling that story, both because it was "telling on" someone and because it was too narrow a story to have such an importance so much later, a way of defining myself as victim.

I think one thing we need to cultivate, in order not to tell false tales on ourselves, is a humble agnosticism about the true plotline of our lives. I used to try to organize things into a story almost as they happened. That's wrong. God is the writer, not us. Often we put a spin on our stories, give ourselves a role: the force for good, the victim--we may not be right about that. To remember that the overall plot is God's and we don't know yet how to fit the stories we see into it, nor even whether we are telling them right--I think this helps us be open to the new stories he sends us. And that the new stories ultimately do chase out the old.

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