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