The Story We Tell Ourselves (Part 1)
I wrote a new piece for the rabbit room and thought I’d post it here as well. Thanks for reading!
A part of what draws us to this peculiar treasure of a community called the Rabbit Room is a shared love of stories and storytelling. We are a bookish and thoughtful tribe who believe a book is more than something to read—it’s a doorway to enter a universe as significant as our own, full of life, wonder, and wisdom. We walk the aisles of second-hand bookstores with the fervor of treasure hunters, smelling the open pages when nobody is looking, intoxicated by them. We love to lose ourselves in grand and beautiful tales, believing that it’s one of the best ways to be found again. We regard our favorite writers with a sacred awe, letting them into the deepest, most intimate places in our hearts.
Yet for all of our love of storytelling, it’s easy to forget that each of us is a powerful and accomplished storyteller in his or her own right, with a vivid imagination and capacity for creating wonderful and terrible worlds. It is a gift bestowed upon us by the Great Storyteller who made us in his image. He whose words are made flesh endows us with the power to bring our own stories to life. When we remember this and walk in the truth and grace of it we tell better stories with our lives.
We are, of course, a story that he is telling, but I believe he also invites us to be co-storytellers with him, participating in the tale, every one of us a novelist and autobiographer. Our work is published in the daily living of the life we lead. It shapes us and everyone we know.
I believe our storytelling falls into two categories, each a part of the other: the story we tell the world and the story we tell ourselves. The story we tell the world is a pro-active and intentional kind of storytelling, paving the road as it opens before us. “What kind of story do I want to tell today?” is a question that helps me participate with purpose in the daily chapters of my life. The story we tell ourselves is responsive and interpretive of events as they happen to us or around us. It’s the way a plot line runs through me before continuing on to others. Together, the story I tell the world and the story I tell myself form the single narrative of my life and either lead me deeper into the life-giving heart of it or drive me away from it.
Though I prefer pro-active story telling in my own life—where I have a stronger sense of participating in the direction of the narrative—I believe I can be just as intentional in my responsive and interpretive storytelling, and this is what I want to focus on here. I am empowered when I’m aware that every moment I am telling a story and that the plot can turn in me, right where I stand. Knowing I hold a pen helps me mean what I write.
But just as I am empowered when I am aware, there are consequences when I’m not. Another voice takes over like a ghostwriter when I’m not looking: it is the voice of my broken nature and it speaks the loudest when I stop being intentionally responsive and instead become merely reactive—left to the mercy of whatever story my emotions, physical condition, state of mind, hormones, etc. want to tell me at the time. When I’m exhausted I am inclined to tell a different story than I would if I were well rested. When I’m sad, I may come to believe that a fiction is truth. When I’m lost in my own insecurity, I find rejection in the eyes of every character in the scene. When I’m full of fear, every shadow hides a bogey. When I’m angry, I may set my world on fire, burning up entire chapters of my life. This is how many beautiful stories turn very sad.
My friend Al, a gifted storyteller, helped me understand the power of the story we tell ourselves. He had a friend who was supposed to meet him for lunch one day but didn’t show up. At first Al was irritated. “It was inconsiderate of him to waste my time.” When Al couldn’t reach him throughout that afternoon to see what happened, he began to worry about him. “Is he okay? Was he in an accident?” By the next day, having still not heard from him, Al began to wonder if he had somehow offended his friend. “Is he ignoring my calls? Is he so angry with me over something that he refuses to talk to me? What did I do?” And so what began as a happy story about two friends sharing a meal and good conversation together was led away into stories of blame, fear, and then shame.
Several days later the real story emerged: his friend had a sudden family emergency and had to catch an early flight that morning. In his hurry to leave, he misplaced his phone and was without it until he got back home.
I recognize myself in Al’s narrative and in it see the kinds of stories that I so often tell myself, though I’m usually not even aware that I’m doing it. How often do I run with the stories of blame, fear and shame? I am vulnerable to this kind of thing everyday and, if I’m not careful, I can become the victim of my own worst story telling—led into the sad, shadowy corners of a confusing narrative and away from the heart of the plot and the characters I care about the most—including, and especially, myself, or at least the self that I most want to be.
Great wars are fought and lost daily in the broken storytelling of our darkened imaginations. But recognizing ourselves as powerful storytellers who have a say in our own story helps us to participate in the tale by inviting the light of grace into our narrative, taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), and submitting our stories to the ongoing chronicle of God’s larger tale of redemption.
Al’s account helps me to be more than merely reactive. It puts the pen back in my hand by helping me ask the question: “What is the story I’m telling myself in this moment?” Asking this interrupts the sad script that runs on autopilot without my being aware of it. Armed with the knowledge that God has gifted me to be a story-teller, I am entrusted and empowered to tell the kind of story I love the most: A beautiful narrative full of truth and grace.
I do this best when I ask these two questions: “What kind of story do I want to tell today?” and “What is the story I’m telling myself in this moment?”
The first question helps me to enter my narrative with purpose and intention. I shape and am shaped by it. Is what I’m doing right now adding to the beauty of the story God has given me to tell? Or am I writing a scene that I’ll regret?
The second question helps break the spell of the gibbering voices of fear, pride, and insecurity that are always trying to hijack my story. Like Oz the Great and Powerful exposed behind the curtain, I am liberated from the worst version of myself. There in the light of my awareness, the sad, scary lies that bully me in the darkened corners of my imagination are exposed and scattered. I can pick up the pen and by God’s grace I can write something new.
What kind of story do I want to tell today? What kind of stories am I telling myself right now? Do they ring with truth or read like bad fiction? How can I tell a better story starting right now?