The Stories We Tell

We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Our brains are tirelessly at work (even while we sleep!), putting the pieces of our life into a story that will help us make sense out of it. Storytelling is so much a part of being human that most of us don’t even notice when we are doing it. We easily jump to a conclusion from one or two bits of information: a colleague yawning during our presentation, a friend not returning a text message, a request from our boss for an urgent meeting, or a member of the opposite sex greeting us with a smile. Our mind begins spinning stories, true or not. It takes a disciplined detective to remain open to the evidence and not get misled by the red herrings. Indeed, one of the hardest human things to do is to abide in that in-between place in which we do not yet know the whole story, and be content to watch and wait.

Perhaps that is why I was so aggravated by the ending of the hit TV show Lost – do you remember it? For so many of us, it captivated our hearts, only to leave us unsatisfied, irritated, or downright frustrated.

While I was in Rome working on my doctorate, a group of us watched a couple of episodes each week. We laughed; we shed tears; we waited with bated breath for the next week’s episodes. When the finale came out, I prepared a steak dinner on the roof of our residence and we had a lovely evening – lovely, that is, until we watched the final episode. One of my friends was actually cursing and swearing as he hurled his ottoman across the room – mostly for dramatic effect. But his theatrics told the story of what our hearts were feeling at the time. We were deeply dissatisfied with the lack of resolution. We felt used, manipulated, and cast aside. How could someone spin a story, leave so many enticing hints and fragments, and then leave so many parts unresolved?

It was the best of TV shows; it was the worst of TV shows. It was so amazing because it was storytelling within storytelling. I believe it was the flashbacks that made the show especially great. Each character had a deeply believable, profoundly complex, and totally human story. Little by little, fragments of their life emerged. It was easy to empathize with them, to feel their heartache and heartbreak, to cheer them on in their courageous moments of growth, or to cringe with disappointment when they took steps into the shadows. As the episodes progressed, the pieces of the past of each character, the sum total of the things done to them and the things they freely did, all served as warp and weft, forming the fabric of one gripping life story. It was beautiful.

I suppose that Lost suffered the fate of so many American TV shows – the curse of popularity. So long as a TV show can somehow be profitable, new episodes will continue to be generated, regardless of the quality. Lost found some new life by introducing new characters and by going even more in depth in the stories of some of the old standbys. But the plot twists of the show itself, while thrilling and enticing, eventually became its demise. In its final seasons, Lost left cliffhanger after cliffhanger – and just kept moving on to the next cliffhanger, without ever circling back for resolution. In the end, we felt like the woman who keeps going back to her abusive lover. Surely this time it will be different! In the end, like an abusive lover, the show did not deliver on its empty promises. And still, we loved it.

I’ve done some fascinating reading lately: Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, and The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson. While I don’t endorse 100% of what they say, all three books inspired much meditation and reflection. All three describe this deeply human quality of storytelling. We are storytellers by our very nature. Without stories, we cannot make sense out of life.

But there is a shadowy side to our storytelling. Not all of our stories are true stories. In our unwillingness to watch and wait in hope, we can begin telling lies about ourselves, about others, and about God.

I know for myself that I have often fluctuated back and forth between one of two extremes: self-exaltation and self-shaming.  In my moments of self-exaltation, I deny or minimize my unseemly behaviors or my personal problems. Puffed up with pride, I begin relying on myself and growing in a false confidence. In those moments, I easily excuse behaviors in myself that I totally dislike in others. I put on a mask and project a version of myself that I would like others to accept. I suspect I am not alone in these tendencies.

In the present age of social media, there is an ever greater temptation to tell a well-crafted and glamorous story about ourselves – whether or not it is true – and to compare our story to the story of others. All of these self-exalting stories are cardboard cutouts, like the filming stage of an old a spaghetti western. Then come those moments in which the truth knocks over our façade, and we are terrified of being discovered for the fraud that we (think we) are.

The other side I often experience is telling a story of self-shaming. Then my survival instincts kick in: fight or flight or freeze. At my worst, I begin blaming others or become demanding or demeaning. More commonly, I withdraw into isolation and coping, or I avoid anything that feels challenging, for fear of failure. I know I am not the only one who does these things.

The problem with both versions of storytelling (self-exaltation and self-shaming) is that they are highly selective. We are taking only parts of our story, and distorting the whole. Our lives our complex. Like the characters on Lost, we make many mistakes AND we make heroic choices amidst difficult circumstances. Evil things are done to us AND we freely choose to cooperate in evil.  We are victims of tragedy AND we are given opportunities for freedom and redemption. We behave in ugly or hurtful ways AND we show great sensitivity and compassion.

The bigger story for each of us is the story of a redeemed sinner who is in the process of being sanctified by Jesus. Every part of our story matters. Every part needs to be touched by his healing grace. When our entire story, in every detail, gets united with the saving story of Jesus, we begin to discover who we really are – and it is far more beautiful and more worth living than any pretend story we’ve ever told about ourselves. We can be known and loved in our story. Then, on the Day of Judgment, when our merciful Savior opens the Book of Life and proclaims our entire story for all to hear, all will praise God for the amazing story Jesus has told in and through us.

The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.