In the summer of 2011, perhaps the most bitter, dead summer of my life, I read my first Donald Miller book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I was challenged by a lot of ideas in this particularly autobiographical and existential novella. Miller posits that each one of us are like characters in a story, and in order for our lives to tell great stories, they must follow the narrative rules and structures of all great stories. In other words, the same concepts at play in story-writing should be at play in life writing, or the agency of directing our own stories through our attitudes and actions.
A year and a half (and several heartbreaks and joys alike) later, I attended Miller’s Storyline Conference at beautiful Point Loma Nazarene University this weekend. As I begin to unravel the multitudes of thoughts, ideas, and recent experiences threading through my mind and heart from the last 48 hours, one thing in particular keeps striking me: time. I guess, in a story or narrative, this is the idea of sequencing. The majority of the concepts offered at the conference this weekend were not entirely new or strange, but they were nonetheless enlightening, and highly encouraging. You see, the last several months, maybe even years, of my character’s journey have been leading me to arrive at just the very truths that were expressed this weekend. But my character was not ready for them before this weekend. In whatever way both God and I work together to author my life, the writer/s knew that so many events had to happen first, in order for the events of this weekend to echo properly in my heart so that difficult ideas would be embraced, not rejected.
Of the many epiphanies and profundities (not sure that’s a word) that my character has already begun to ponder, the following were so veryun-coincidentally and strikingly articulated this weekend:
1.) Man is in search of meaning, meaning in suffering especially. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, argued that, unlike Freud’s theory that man is ultimately in search of pleasure, what man really needs, especially in a redemptive manner, is meaning. He says, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning.”
In the darkest of my days at the end of 2012, without a doubt, the days that contained slivers of light were the days that I was able to discern a purpose in my anguish, whether it was a truth I’d long needed to learn, a friend or loved one my pain was able to help through empathy, or a heightened awareness of the closeness of God in heartache.
In my best days of teaching or serving or feeling joy, it’s because I saw clearly my purpose or meaning in that place, that time, with those people. Specific moments that come to mind are lessons taught my first year of teaching and conversations had in Rwanda.
2.) There is a point in which going back into your pain can prove healing, but only after some distance protects you from the rawness of the initial cut. Phil Lokey, who oversees Onsite Ministry (a ministry for Deep Healing), said, “Before you can really gain the wisdom of the resurrection, you have to walk through the death.” Immediately, I recalled words written by Henri Nouwen in his book The Voice of Love: A Journey from Anguish to Freedom. He talks about how going back into the pain is necessary for healing, but to sit in the pain too soon will actually take you farther from healing. Oh, how this is true. A wise person, also a person who caused me pain, once told me, “Let it go for now. You can come back to it when you’re ready for it.” While I was not always able to take his advice, I realize in hindsight the great and beautiful truth in that admonition. Never returning to pain guarantess it will haunt you; you must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But, walking through it too soon can easily devolve into self pity and a bottomless pit of despair.
3.) The best stories are the ones where a character wants something, and must overcome conflict to get it. Tom Shadyac, Hollywood director and now philanthropist said, “We want conflicts in stories, just not our lives. The victim asks, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ The mystic says, ‘Thank you.” Oh, Lord have mercy if this hasn’t been perhaps the biggest lesson of the last four months: the point of pain, the beauty of eucharisteo, and the existential peace of mysticism. I hate, hate, hate change. I’m human, I naturally crave comfort. But, when I go to the movies, I want conflict, I want pain, I want challenges, because my soul craves to see the conflict resolved, the pain healed, and the challenges overcome. The difficult transition is to go from the cinema to my own story. More than not wanting the conflict, pain, and challenges, I need to want the resolution, the healing, and the triumph that comes from undergoing these difficulties, and praising them. For, it is only through conflict, pain, and challenges that a character changes and becomes great. Donald Miller put it this way, in analyzing the life of Joseph from the Genesis narrative, “God has no problem putting me into conflict. He’s more interested in my character than my comfort.” Damn. That’ll preach. Thankfully, I’ve been able to reach a place where I’m eternally grateful for all the hard, because it has shown me so much more good than I would ever have known otherwise. I needed the shadows to appreciate the Sun.
4.) God’s will and decision making is not always as complicated as we want to believe. Sometimes, there are right decisions, and then there are right decisions. Recently, I’ve been tossing around different dreams, places, relationships, jobs, etc and wondering what the heck road I’m supposed to go down. And I think, ultimately, God is giving me a choice. Both roads can be right. Both can be good. Both can honor Him. But, perhaps there is one that will make me the most happy, and in that, I can probably most enjoy God and point others to Him. The beauty of God’s love is that He gives us the agency to partner with Him in His Kingdom, and to do it with the passions, desires, and gifts He plants inside us. And those can be varied, and vast. At the risk of sounding subjective, there is not just “one” and only path for me or “one” and only calling on my life. According to Garry Friesen in his book, Principles of Decision Making, “Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose.” Praise Him. And then, pray to Him; pray hard.
5.) Hope. Miller states that one of the elements it takes to be a great character whose life tells a great story is the whimsical and powerful ability to possess “absurd hope.” This has been perhaps the most ironic of all lessons that appeared deja vu status this weekend. My heart began to pick up faith and love a lot faster than hope in these past few months. Like, it was fairly apparent I needed to have more faith. I began to see God’s incredible, experiential love for me through healing. But, hope, hope was much more elusive. Nonetheless, somewhere in January, after the journey God took me on to find real faith and love, He also began to give me the hope to dream again. Little did I know, hope is actually the word that pops up the most in my blog. It also popped up on a gift someone gave me recently. Hope seems to be begging to be etched onto my heart again. Perhaps, I’m even thinking, it will soon get etched onto my skin. But, that is a topic for another blog, sometime soon if I can muster the time, energy, and decisiveness.
So, for now, with all these undeniable parallel and repetitive themes running through my mind, I can say with solidarity that dreams are re-awakening, one of them being writing. And I hope, I hope absurdly, that I will be a character who takes action and whose life tells a great story, one which transforms me and saves many lives, as Miller would suggest.