Life consists of stories. By this, I don’t mean that we all read stories or watch stories or hear stories, but rather that we live stories. More than likely, we don’t live a single story either; instead, we integrate different stories, mostly based on our experiences with life, which typically are disparate.
Dan McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, has scientifically studied stories, or life narratives, as he sometimes puts it, more than anyone. According to McAdams, a life story includes a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future. It includes a cast of characters, key experiences, and unifying threads. A critical assumption of narrative theory and narrative therapy is that the stories that most dominant our thought lives typically are the stories that most shape our destinies. If we somehow change our dominant internal stories, our lives change.
It is profound to reflect on the stories that most influence our lives. One story that has altered me is a story of death. When my mom died of breast cancer when I was 14, I coped poorly. For various reasons, I didn’t grieve honestly. However, these things have ways of resurfacing, and the upshot for me has been that I have been preoccupied with health, illness, and death during most of my adult life. The consequences have been both good (for example, helping me to appreciate life, have motivation to live fully now, and have a realistic view of death) and bad (for example, being anxious about health conditions and my own death). A second prominent story in my life has come from a humanistic worldview that emphasizes respect and care for humans without any accompanying religious or spiritual worldview. Many of my best friends are non-religious humanists, and some are the most admirable people I know. Taken together, these two storylines often have contributed to a sense of anxiety and despair, as they both suggest that life on earth is all there is. A third prominent story in my life comes from American culture. The story here is of people seeking to attain worth through standing out, relative to others, typically though achievement. I have proactively sought some of this story through psychology and self-help materials, both of which emphasize individuality. This story has motivated me to “be all I can be,” but also has led me to believe, in some ways, that my life lacks meaning unless it achieves something significant.
It is in this context that I read with astonishment Frederick Buechner’s book “The Sacred Journey.” Some of Buechner’s introductory lines help to explain:
“My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all. For the reader. . . it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all these shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact. . . even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of these fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past – many of them half forgotten – through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey.”
Below I seek this third possibility.
Buechner writes about childhood in ways that bring back to me many otherwise long-lost memories of my own childhood. He writes that “it is by its content rather than by its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity – happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort.” More specifically, I deeply resonate with Buechner’s description of the child’s cast of life characters:
“. . . the people I knew as a child – my parents and grandparents, my brother, the nurses who came and went, the teachers and friends, the characters in books. . . I saw them all in much the same way as boundless. It never crossed my mind that there had been a time before they were or that there would ever come a time when they would be no longer. They were the Atlases who held the world on their shoulders – held my world anyway, held me – and their heads towered above the clouds.”
This definitely seems true in my life story. There were Atlases in my life – my mom, dad, and brother; a parish priest who basically was a father figure in my life; friends and their parents; teachers and coaches, etc. When I was young, their presence in my life was taken for granted. Now, I cannot conceive of how I would be now should any one of them not been there.
Of course, childhood only can last so long, and Buechner convincingly ties this to the time that it becomes clear that the Atlases of our lives are limited, that they die, or perhaps that they are fallible. In Buechner’s life, the exact moment this shifted was at the time of his father’s sudden death. He writes:
“From that moment to this I have ridden on time’s back as a man rides a horse, knowing fully that the day will come when my ride will end and my time will end and all that I am and all that I have will end with them. . . When somebody you love dies. . . it is like when your house burns down; it isn’t for years that you realize the full extent of your loss. For me it was longer than for most, if indeed I have realized it fully even yet, and in the meanwhile the loss came to get buried so deep in me that after a time I scarcely ever took it out to look at it at all, let alone to speak of it.”
As I mentioned above, this fits my experience almost perfectly. In some ways, this could leave one in anxiety or despair. However, Buechner then moves to a third potential season of life that has the potential to heal and restore hope.
Buechner begins an account of this potential last phase of life by noting that he had a “compelling sense” of an unseen giver.” This sense led him to a search that has the potential to change life, as it provides a story that eclipses all other stories. As he writes:
“Each must say for himself what he searches for, and there will be as many answers as there are searchers, but perhaps there are certain general answers that will do for us all. We search for a self to be. We search for other selves to love. We search for work to do. And since even when to one degree or another we find these things, we find also that there is still something crucial missing which we have not found, we search for that unfound thing too, even though we do not know its name or where it is to be found or even if it is to be found at all.”
Buechner elaborates on this latter point:
“It seems to me now that power from beyond time was working to achieve its own aim through my aimless life in time as it works through the lives of all of us and all our times. . . [W]hat I developed. . . was a sense of plot and, beyond that, a sense that perhaps life itself has a plot – that the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own, [and] are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere.”
With Buechner, “I choose to believe that, from beyond time, a saving mystery breaks into our time at odd and unforeseeable moments, and as I approach the end of this account. . . it is a few of those moments that I mainly want to describe.” For me personally, I sensed grace when my mom and dad took care of me when I was little and when a parish priest in my hometown befriended me and cared for me after my mom died. Grace was present when friends entered my life who encouraged me to set goals for my life and do something with my gifts. There was grace in the Professors who nurtured my intellect and supported me as I pursued an education. Grace was in my various mentors who came into my life to help me to learn about myself and how to live well. My wife has been full of grace for years in providing me with a stable relationship that has anchored me. Finally, I have found grace in a church home that has surpassed my expectations with role models and friends who have helped me to realize what it means to be fully alive. Maybe more than all of this, I share with Buechner a sense of grace that transcends what I can sense. Specifically, it is in the grace of God that I seek to find myself in a story of redemption, hope, and purpose that becomes the defining story of my life.
Buechner has the last word on this:
“. . . There can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all. . . true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive. . . God knows I have never been any good at following the road it pointed me to, but at least, by grace, I glimpsed the road and saw that it is the only one worth travelling.”