Story Telling & Crisis

This past quarter I had a student whose final project was about storytelling. Working at a Christian undergraduate institution, there was something of a culture in which a veneer of “nice” was masking shallowness and exclusion.

The stumbled upon solution? Storytelling night. Or, as they call it, “Yarning in the Round.” I forgive him for turning a noun into a verb.

Listening to his NPR-style documentary, the power of telling stories came through repeatedly. It’s funny–we look at the people around us and assume everyone else is “normal,” but then we exclude ourselves from that label.

We realize that our own stories are not stories of confidence and glory but rather of fumbling and shame and wounds all mixed up with moments of hope and beauty. But somehow we encounter other people and assume that their lives are the public moments of being put-together and beautiful that we happen to encounter–creating a content for the label “normal” that applies to no actual person that we have ever known with any depth.

Reframing normal. That’s what storytelling is about. It provides the rich, comforting revelation that my crap is, in fact, normal, and that there are fellow travelers through the mire. And, hope for moments of rest and peace and beauty.

My student’s project dovetails beautifully with a recent initiative of ReImagine in San Francisco.

About a month ago the stories were about spirituality and sexuality (you can read one by Anna Broadway and one by Dani Scoville [this one was subjected to heavy revision by the editor] on the SoJo blog). This week they were on Surviving Identity Crisis.

Of course, in order for you to feel the full power of the stories you’d have to… well… hear the story. But, despite that, here were a few take-aways that were rich for me:

  • We work with metaphors that create the wrong idea of what most of our lives will look like: we talk about climbing a ladder or being on a path. But most of us are, instead, enmeshed in stories. Not kids stories with a straight, single plot line. But real stories. Where people are diverted. Where quests fail. Where there is no going home and starting over. This is no “there and back again” children’s tale.
  • We tend to think about issues of identity, vocation, and career somewhat interchangeably. We need to get over this. There is an “I” who lives this life who can move from job to job, who can be, and respond, and love irrespective of other parts that are in place. (At least, in theory…)
  • It is a common, and often lifelong experience to wrestle with finding a way for our deepest longings and passions to coincide with the work we do on a daily basis (whether paid or not).

There were two particular pieces of wisdom from the night that I think will stay with me a long time.

  1. When making a decision, or discovering oneself to be in a time of transition, often it is more helpful to think in terms of a 5ish year block of time rather than “the rest of my life.” The reality is that very few of the courses we choose set us in one immovable place For.Ev.Ver.
  2. Richard Rohr told one of our storytellers that we spend the first 40 years of our lives building a tower, and then we come to the point where we have to decide if we’re going to be willing to trust God enough to jump off of it to live into what comes next. Yikes. But, importantly, this “tower” isn’t a tower simply built on success. It is the work of the successes and failures alike.

The stories held a great deal of “normalzing” power: they were stories of anxiety, of suffering, of rejection, of pain, of celebration, of hope, of hopes dashed, of insecure answers to the question “what do you do?,” of getting places but never arriving.

In that, there was creation of a new “normal”: it’s your normal. It’s my normal. There’s no “put together them” who stand over against “angst-ridden, disappointed me.”

Our lives are real stories–and good ones. Stories that are much too rich and complex to find resolution in one single dynamic such as job or marital status or recognition. Stories that, all too often, make it look like the only way to resurrection glory is the way of the cross.

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