Telling Our Stories

Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.

Colossians 3: 9-11

We speak much today of “sharing our stories.” We understand intuitively that by speaking to another about the actual persons, situations, and events of our lives, we deepen our relationship and our felt sense of connection to each other. We feel less alone in the world, and by listening to others we welcome them into our worlds. We have reflected often on the truth that it is, in fact, in what seems to be the most unique (and often hidden) aspects of our lives that we discover our common bond, the reality that what is most uniquely and deeply true of us is what is “common to all.” This is the truth that today’s first reading from Colossians expresses: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all in all.”

Yet, as with every significant human endeavor, the telling of our stories is also fraught with peril. There is peril born of our vulnerability, if the other or others refuses to be able to receive and accept the truth of our lives, our attempted expression may result in our withdrawing even more totally within ourselves. There is also, however, a danger in the fact that what we take to be our story is always at once true and not true. Our story both reveals and conceals our true identity. This is true because our memories take form based on our present experience. We are always attempting to make sense of our lives, and the sense we are making at any given moment becomes the lens through which we see our past.

When I was a child, my mother would often append to an expression of her opinion, “That’s my story and I’m stuck with it.” There are ways in which our stories do get stuck. When, for example, we are living with rage and resentment about something that has happened to us, we shall keep repeating the “gory” details of what another has inflicted on us for the sake of the relief and gratification that such expression affords us. If we have been humiliated, we shall keep repeating to ourselves, in word and action, the detailing of our failure in the hopes that by repeating it we shall somehow overturn it.

Our stories also are affected by the values we have adopted over time and by the identities we have come to assume. We interpret our past in light of our desired future, and so we can expand the significance of those events that serve our current identity and allow to recede those memories which may counter our desired sense of ourselves. Our stories tend to take on a kind of linear form which, of course, they never actually have in truth.

As we think about and relate our stories, then, we must do so from a deep ground of humility and unknowing. As a graduate student of spirituality many years ago, I wrote a paper for a course on liturgy and sacraments of which I was very proud, unusually proud in fact. When I received it back, the grade was a bit lower than I had anticipated. In her comments on the paper the teacher wrote that I should, in my personal exemplifications, attempt to be “more opaque.” This directive was a mystery to me. I had been trained as an undergraduate to work always toward clarity in my writing, to express very clearly my intended meaning. Yet here I was being told to describe experience in such a way that it was open to multiple meanings, to write even of my own experience with a humility that I realized I did not yet, or perhaps never fully would, know the meaning of the experience.

To this day, when I listen to the stories of others, I encourage them also to be “more opaque.” When we tell ourselves, and so others, the stories of our lives, we do so in the context of a current meaning at which we have arrived. It is the meaning that colors the story. Yet, as I age, I discover that the stories of my life are constantly changing. As a young person, the stories I told of my parents were always of them as my parents. For me, they had no life separate from their relationship to me. Year after year, however, I discover that my sense of their identity changes. As my feelings toward them move from those of anger or hurt, or resentment toward compassion and appreciation for their own life struggles, I actually remember events and experiences I had with them and ponder experiences of their earlier lives of which they had told me that I had seemed to have forgotten. As I slowly develop more compassion for myself, I tend to remember much more vividly times in my life when through my fear, or selfishness, or obtuseness I have hurt or failed to be with for others. I can begin to feel the pain of those failures in the light of my growing capacity to experience forgiveness for them.

Today the author of Colossians tells us to “Stop lying to one another.” It is our lies, to ourselves and others, lies both deliberate and indeliberate, that create within and among us a sense of separation and alienation. Our lies are the barriers between us and communion with the others. From the time we are young, we are told by not to lie. Nonetheless, we spend much of our life spinning lies, lies that we tell on purpose to hide ourselves and lies of which we are unaware that hide us from ourselves. If the story we tell of our lives is a rigid and frozen one, it may create an illusion of intimacy, but its result will be greater isolation and distance. If, however, we can trust enough to become more and more “opaque” to ourselves and others, if we can tell a story that is tentative and open always to insight and change, then we shall begin to reveal to and with each other that uniqueness (ordinariness) which is common to us all.

But I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.

Frederich Buechner, Telling Secrets

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*