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More than you should be shaping yours
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Tell your story, they say. Everyone has a story to tell.
Our books of the year in this issue do precisely that—some layered up with the stories of characters stretched even across galaxies, some straightforward in tackling an issue of the day, and some overwhelming like a wave shedding new light on an old topic, namely our pilgrim journey.
All of these stories fit the formula laid down by Aristotle: They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if we’re honest, when it comes to telling our own stories, on our own we don’t have enough information to do it. We weren’t fully conscious at the beginning of our own story, and we may descend again into some altered state of reality at the end.
One of the earliest stories I know about my life is that when my mother and father brought me home from the hospital, my brother gazed inside the bassinet and exclaimed, “That’s not a girl, she doesn’t have pigtails.”
Different forces can be at work to shape our stories, and one of the most cautionary of these is ourselves.
That quip formed my earliest image of my brother, gave me a window into his personality from a time I don’t remember actually. And that’s where the stories others tell, and the stories our culture tells, come in. They fill in the beginning we don’t remember, and the end we may not see, plus help us understand the living it out we do in the middle. Because the trick to telling our own story is actually living it out in the middle, knowing there is a verifiable beginning and an end, and being alert to the clues of its temporal and eternal meaning.
Some of the greatest news in life is that our stories can change, the past and future be remade in a moment. I’m profoundly grateful my story changed upon hearing a pastor recount Belshazzar’s drinking out of the stolen goblets and the writing on the wall. It was a telling that brought me to faith in Jesus Christ.
But different forces can be at work to shape our stories, and one of the most cautionary of these is ourselves. Ultimately, we aren’t the best mediators of our own stories. We know too well we present versions of ourselves; just take a look at social media. And we can make and remake versions of our lives, patching and mending beginning, middle, and end from whole cloth, as though we are gods. After Bruce Jenner appeared as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, he-cum-she tweeted, “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self.” And Barack Obama (via one of his accounts) retweeted it with the comment, “It takes courage to share your story.”
Besides the sex change operations, Jenner had taken a new name profoundly at odds with any attachment to the reality of his story. In 1949, the year Jenner was born, Bruce was the 26th most popular name among boy names. Caitlyn didn’t enter the list of top 1,000 until 1976, the year the 26-year-old Jenner won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon. Then it was Caitlin, the Irish name, which wasn’t popularized as Caitlyn until the 1990s. Taking a name more suited to one of his daughters, Jenner took his own metanarrative to a new level, recasting not only its middle and end but its beginning.
Jenner isn’t alone guilty of reshaping one’s facts, though he did it in profoundly disfiguring and disturbing ways. Decades ago journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in The End of Christendom wrote about our “built-in propensity” to twist facts so much we miss the most important thing—“… if I had been correspondent in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should almost certainly have spent my time knocking about with the entourage of Pontius Pilate, finding out what the Sanhedrin was up to, and lurking around Herod’s court with the hope of signing up Salome to write her memoirs exclusively.”
On a day-to-day basis we journalists have to admit we miss the big news, too. A starting point is having care and integrity in the story we’re writing of our own lives. America’s preoccupation with fantasy, and its grotesque propensity to create fantasy lives, may come at the expense of telling the greatest story of all.
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