“Job found contentment and even joy, outside the context of comfort, health or stability. He understood the story was not about him, and he cared more about the story than he did about himself.”
— Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life)
Last week at church I went to speak to the pastor, since I am never home for very long anymore. He asked me what I planned on doing now that I was done with college, and I told him about my upcoming fellowship year in Ghana. As I told him with a smile on my face, excited to share the news with someone else, he watched me with a frown upon his own. When I was done chattering away, he told me to take care because he remembered how alone I had felt and how scared I was on my last trip. I was confused by his reaction, and later that day I asked my mom about it. She told me to recall the few weeks I was home between Ghana and Spain and a testimonial I had given one night during the church service.
During my testimonial, I scrapped the carefully written out words on a lined piece of paper in favor for words that came straight from my heart and onto the pulpit. I spoke about how scared I was that I had a serious case of the illness and the fearful days in the hospital. But I also spoke about how the relationships that I deepened and forged while I was ill, made me face more bravely the realities of our human mortality and to realize that the question was not if or when I would get better, but rather having the faith to know that it would pass. So while the pastor had been right in his assessment that I had been scared on my trip, it was only a natural fear that most would encounter. But I had never been alone, because the story I was unfolding in Ghana and the story I tell from my time there is one of community, relationships, and positive change. If I focused on the part of the story about my comforts and health, I would overshadow the real reason for the story:
As we were leaving the hospital I realized the toll malaria had taken on my body in just three days. When I put a pair of my jeans on I realized I had lost a shocking amount of weight, my face looked a bit hollow, my hair was a bushy mess, and my arms and legs were thinner and weaker. My wrists were bruised from the IVs and my neck hurt from all the retching, with my throat feeling scraped and dry. But I had my life, and I am regaining strength and energy and health every day. And I have God and all the prayers of my loved ones to thank for that. And I have the choice of taking this unfortunate event and letting it mar my trip here to Ghana, or I can look at it as just another building block in my life and events that have happened to me that have led me to be a stronger person. I think I am going to do the latter. Malaria taught me that sometimes you have to go through the worst before you get better, and that holds true for life too. Sometimes life hands you the worst situations before you end up with the best. My parents asked me again today if I was sure I did not want to go home. I told them a decisive no. I told them no because my work here is not done. There’s still so much to do, and so little time. (Excerpt from Ghana journal entry dated 4 July 2009)
I didn’t go home when I left the hospital because the story wasn’t finished. I may not always be the narrator of my story, but I am the editor of my life. In one of my favorite books that I continue to re-read, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, the author Donald Miller subtitled it “what I learned while editing my life.” The premise of the book is that Miller is approached to have a movie made of his life and realizes that he does not like the story his life tells—so he sets out to write a new one. It was not a fake story that Miller sought, but rather working hard at the life he had in order to be able to tell a better story, a story worth telling. I believe that the parts we should share are the parts that deal with human motion. Not the stagnant stories, but the stories about change, like the ebb and flow of life or the transformation from conflict to peace and resolution. Miller writes:
“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ”
My story was not one of the suffering of a serious illness, but how it had opened me up to understanding my community in ways my work could not. And how in the depths of pain, I found an immeasurable source of strength within myself.
We have to know what stories to tell, how to tell them, and when to tell them. Everyone has a reason for the stories they share, when they share them, and whom they share them with. Black women during the years of slavery and the years immediately following shared their stories through mediums such as quilt making, in order to pass on family heritage and culture. Survivors of horrifying events such as the Holocaust share their stories in order to preserve their memories, the memories of those who did not survive, and as warnings to the global community to never let history repeat itself. Nicholas Kristof believes in the power of storytelling in order to encourage others to participate in alleviating the plight of others. For me personally, the story my life tells and the stories that I tell matter twofold. First, it matters because I believe that there is a higher power who reads it. Second, it is important to me because stories are how I reach out to others in the hope that in my own story, they might sometimes find a piece of their own. Then, we aren’t that different after all.
So while one might wish that I take care to avoid loneliness and fear, I wish for the kind of plot that the best stories are made from, because that’s the part I’m going to focus on and share. It’s not the story I have to tell, but it’s the story I choose to tell myself and others. Because for me, life is all about telling a different story from the positive perspective. I prefer the stories of optimism, success, healing, and transformation.