Stories, spirituality help us make sense of life

For a few years now, a phenomenon has been quietly spreading: the six-word memoir, credited to Smith Magazine founder Larry Smith. He saw the explosion of online self-expression via Twitter, Facebook, and blog sites, and decided to celebrate it by inviting readers of his online magazine to tell their life stories in six words. The results were huge – thousands of submissions of six-word memoirs from writers both famous and, you know, normal – everyday people. These memoirs have been compiled into books on topics like love and heartbreak, work, parenting, and being a teenager (written by real live current teenagers).

The idea even showed up in O magazine, which showcases six-word memoirs of readers and some of Oprah Winfrey’s famous friends. One of my favorites is by Mindy Kaling, the writer and costar of “The Office,” whose memoir goes: “Mindy Kaling wore sequins to everything.” I fantasize about being as fabulous as that.

The fun part – and the challenge – is to encapsulate your life – your very self – in so few words. The beautiful part is that you can rewrite your memoir whenever you want: It’s not as though you have to disavow an entire book or consider it incomplete, you simply have to change six words. Change your life story as the story of your life changes.

As long as there have been people, there have been stories: stories of the gods and goddesses whose wills and whims determine the fate of humans; stories of heroes and heroines undertaking life-threatening journeys to reach a distant land and the holy grail they seek; stories of bad children being punished to frighten our children into behaving the way we want them to; stories of how we met our significant others and of how our relationships fell apart.

Each one of us, every moment we breathe, lives our personal story. 

We don’t typically think of our lives as stories, but it’s one of the most obvious metaphors for the human experience. Stories, like lives, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our lives, like stories, have plots, characters, themes, conflicts, and settings.

Stories are tools humans use to make sense of the world as we experience it, to find meaning in both the joy and, especially, the suffering of life. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes of the importance, while in the concentration camps, of imagining what awaited him afterward. He thought often of his wife Tilly, of her smile, her words and acts of love. He told himself stories about their life together, stories both remembered and imagined.

He writes of marching for miles on a dark, cold night, assaulted by Nazi rifle butts, helping his fellow prisoners when they stumbled, just as they pulled him up when his legs gave out. One of the other prisoners commented that he hoped their wives were better off in their camps and that they did not know what was happening to their husbands. Frankl writes:

“My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. … (I realized that) the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

Later, when the camp he was in was liberated, he would have to deal with the terrible reality that his wife and both his parents died in the camps, the reality that the smile he’d been waiting to see not only in his mind but again with his eyes he would see no more. What Frankl did with this horrific discovery was to create and find meaning: He developed logotherapy, a form of talk therapy in which the patient is specifically challenged to seek meaning from her experiences.

Frankly didn’t believe suffering was necessary to make meaning; far from it, in fact: Meaning is always present. It changes depending on our circumstances and situations, but it is always there, simply awaiting our attention. Frankl was certain that if one could find meaning even within suffering, there was still hope. The way to find that meaning is by examining the stories that make up our lives. 

Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham write: “Stories reveal a spirituality that views life not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived.”

We reach for stories to make sense of our lives and world. We choose how we interpret the stories of our lives and what we do with the pain of our difficult experiences. Kurtz and Ketcham tell us, “Our spiritual problems stem, at least in part, from the fact that we continue to allow someone else to tell us our story.”

They also say that spiritual teachers “first and foremost … listen. Second, they ask questions. Third, they tell stories.” As a chaplain, I am blessed to hear people tell the stories of their lives all the time: When someone we love is in the hospital, gravely ill, we talk about them, and that means telling stories and seeking meaning, usually without even realizing we’re doing it.

I ask a scared woman what she loves most about her hospitalized partner, and she tells me how funny she is, how she makes her laugh so hard she cries, what a beautiful and amazing mom she is to their children. Saying “She’s so funny” doesn’t get across who this woman is; telling a story about something hilarious she did to make her family smile does express something of the heart of this woman. And telling stories about her allows her partner to imagine her happy and well once more. Telling stories is deeply cathartic.

In Kurtz and Ketcham’s book, “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning,” they say that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous realized “that what they needed was a dialogue, and that in their shared alcoholism, on the basis of their common imperfection, they had found it.” It was a formula that worked. Ask anyone in AA or other 12-step groups: These groups work because addicts share their stories, talking through their shame, pain, anger and regret. In the process, they find that others have felt what they feel. Telling their stories helps them feel less alone and more a part of humanity itself.

Each of us today holds the story of our lives, a story about who we are, who we have been and who we will be. That includes the story of our faith and how we live it: how we put what we believe into action day by day.


— The Rev. Holly Lux-Sullivan worked as writer and editor in Martinsburg and in Greensboro, N.C., before entering Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. She now lives and ministers in Mebane, N.C.




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