We tell ourselves stories of who we are. We are fathers and Christians and husbands and cancer survivors and employees and friends and Istrians and brothers and runners and Jaspers and…. The narrative threads are laid out like a jangle of highways around the hub of an existence.
We need those stories – they help to define us, to ourselves if not others. We crave their simplicity. Because of the stories, we like to think that we know what happens next – because that’s what “ought to” happen to me, the health conscious exerciser for instance. But unlike in the movies or great page-turners, we don’t much appreciate plot twists.
We maintain those stories, carefully tending and defending them against all aberrations. They are our comfort. Even when the evidence might say otherwise, we resist edits or rewrites. “I didn’t neglect the relationship. He walked out on me.” If an unfavorable fact or upsetting threat to the narrative plotline arises, we prefer to toss it aside.
Sometimes we willingly shift our stories – maybe by love and marriage or the all-consuming joy of parenthood. Other times life intrudes and we get slammed – like a cancer diagnosis or the death of a much loved one. Those are the blind injustices in life that leave your story tattered. Those times when God interrupts and rudely grabs our attention.
The major alterations to my story – those I’ve chosen as well as those forced upon me - have turned out well in the end. Which is either a testament to the adaptability (and/or self-deception) of the human spirit or a lesson to put more trust in God. Even the slams, I’ve found, offer a stunning confusion followed by a new clarity. My cancer diagnosis obviously changed my perspective on life with the recognition that I could easily not be around someday soon. Every day is precious. Relationships - our connections - are virtually all that matters in the end. It’s all about the love for me now. As best as I can.
I am adjusting to another rewrite to my story. Apparently my pancreas is much less tolerant of fatty foods and alcohol than I previously knew. I have a couple of stones in my pancreatic ducts and spent an overnight in the hospital via the ER a few weeks ago. Not a big deal but necessitating an adjustment to my story. I have to eliminate from my diet the fatty foods and alcohol that inflame my pancreas. Pizza and beer is not worth the damage that they do. The change is not just in diet but in lifestyle and, so, identity. I can still meet my friends out after work, but I won’t be the one having “a drink”. I can no longer justify my plentiful appetite as something I’ve earned by my exercise. Food and drink have gone from being sources of joy in my life to near-adversaries that I need to respect (if not fear). The alcohol will be gone and my food choices more deliberate.
I had planned on not drinking and doing more meditating from the day we returned from our Istria vacation until the NYC marathon in November. I delayed because of a knee injury which kept me from running (so why bother?). Then God interrupted by insisting on the very thing that I sought out for my well-being anyway.
One by one my self-indulgences are being stripped away. The idea of being all good all of the time – although admittedly a positive/good thing – is a rewrite for me. I’ve had to get more responsible in nearly all things as I’ve aged. The older me is updating my story all the time.
As a related aside:
In America today, we have two narratives competing for our allegiance. The one is of a nation of rugged individuals pulling themselves up in the land of opportunity where everything we do is the best in the world. The other story is a land where freedoms come with responsibility for each other and the current situation is unfair to many and there is lots of room for improvement.
As a nation, 9/11 was that kind of slam to our self-story. The financial crisis of 2008 and since has challenged our identity too. Finally, the Sandy Hook tragedy last December shattered our innocence (again). I see each of these as significant incidents where God interrupted. God tried to get our attention. In each case the response of this “Christian nation” has been far from it. We started two wars against people that had done nothing to us on 9/11. We tolerate increasing income inequality and a further erosion of the safety net for those least fortunate. We defend the rights of gun owners over the right to live for tens of thousands of innocent victims of gun violence every year. The knock at the door has come repeatedly and yet we still stubbornly stick to our story.i>