The story of your life is a story that you craft in order to have a bird’s eye view of your life, to comprehend yourself better, and to create meaning to infuse into your relationships.
In this blogpost I will show you why the story of your life matters, why you need to craft a narrative of your life, and how it can change you and people in church.
First of all, as I mentioned, unless they have serious mental disorders, usually people have either a loose story or fragments of narrative to tell to themselves that define who they are. This is so because story is a vehicle of gluing together and making the otherwise disparate experiences of your life meaningful. Story, however weak, brings order.
You have a story of your life too. The story of your life is not necessarily assembled from short, random anecdotes about particular events that seem to have no overarching theme. For example, a marriage is a good reason to make a story and tell it to people. That story can be a part of the greater story of your life in a much more abridged form.
The story of your life is built on most important experiences of your life on this earth. Usually, these are events, relationships, or situations that color everything in your life whether you want it to or not. Those experiences are extremely important to you and become elements of your identity. For me, such an event is reading the Bible for the first time and meeting with Christ in the pages of the Gospels.
So the story of your life is a larger, overarching scenario or narrative that gives the larger picture and informs your important decisions for the future. This story does not need to be rigid. In fact, I believe such an overarching story should be like a template with loose story points so that you can incorporate other events into it as you grow closer to Christ. Moreover, you don’t need to have just one single story of your life. You may have several of them as long as you know why you’re creating these stories.
Second, the story of your life has some therapeutic effects. It does not mean that your story will fix your neuropathy, but it does mean that for your well-being and peace crafting that story will have a positive influence unless it is a morbid, depressing tale. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, writes about how writing stories functions as a way of comprehending the world and getting out what people have in their hearts. In other words, stories will make you pour out and sort out the many tangled knots of your life. Check out his chapter in the book, “The Tyranny of the Final Product.”
Third, the Bible itself shows how people crafted their narratives and told them from generation to generation. Take Exodus. In Exodus 18:3, the Jews are encouraged to tell their children the narrative of leaving Egypt. In Joshua 4:6, we see how the Jews are encouraged to tell the story of crossing the Jordan. In Acts 7, Stephen tells this overarching story of the Jews just before he was killed. These are stories of particular and important events that belonged to a community, but those stories became personalized and owned by other individuals who crafted their version of it to graft their lives into a larger story of a community.
In short, the Bible encourages us to craft our stories and to share them.
Fourth, we Christians live based on stories, and one of the defining stories in our lives is God’s narrative that we read in the Bible. Jesus’ story guides us. In fact, Christ’s story moved generations to action. It still does.
But we also need to build more down-to-earth, personal narratives of our lives woven into the biblical stories and images. You can do that too.
Now, if you think you don’t have an extraordinary life to tell to anyone, just stop right there. Before you find more excuses to hide your unique story from others, let me ask you this question: Do you think you have to be Einstein to tell the story of your life and inspire believers? Or maybe Faulkner?
Your life is unique with your experiences and the insights only you can offer. You may not be a genius in the order of Einstein (do you think I am?), but inspiration does not have to come from geniuses in order for it to change lives. All it needs to do is touch hearts and shake people out of their slumber. For that, your narrative needs to be persuasive, vivid, and connect with people. Several years ago a very small, very ordinary moment in my life reminded me how simple stories or words can change many lives and perspectives.
On one cold February day, I was in a local convenience store to buy food for my dog Cody. As usual, I chitchatted with the cashier while paying. The cashier, a tall woman with slumping shoulders and gray-blue eyes, told me that she had a dog too and asked me what kind of dog I had. I told her mine was a poodle but old and sickly and could not really eat anything except wet food. She smiled as she put the last can into the bag, and then without even looking at me, she sighed. She casually said, “Lucky dog.”
Those two words stabbed me. Suddenly it made me realize that there are thousands of unlucky dogs in shelters in need of human warmth, quality food, and a fulfilling life. The fact that my dog was not one of them only sharpened my perception. Yes, I was aware of animals spending years in shelters (if it is a no-kill shelter by the way) before hearing those two words, but at that moment and from the lips of that cashier, it hit me in a different way.
I believe at that moment I had something similar to an epiphany. A year after that, I started to volunteer in my local animal shelter because I just couldn’t get those two very ordinary and casual words out of my mind. That encounter and those two words are one of the most vivid experiences that I will take with me to the grave.
But guess what? You can affect people like that too. Perhaps you affect people that way without even knowing it just like that cashier never knew how her casual remarks heightened my awareness of animal suffering. Now, think about what happens if you do that intentionally and through polished, balanced, well-crafted narrative. People come to churches to hear stories that can change their lives. Have courage, and be the one who changes their lives with the power of the gospel.
So how you can develop the story or narrative of your life?
Below are some tips to help you.
Stage 1. Before you craft your story
Take your time, and think about your life. Take notes as you answer the questions below.
Answer questions such as these.
1.What’s important to you? What are your important memories and why?
2.Who are important people to you? Is there any specific story or memory of them that matters to you a lot?
3.What are the activities you loved in your childhood or adolescence, and how has your understanding or participation in those activities changed?
4.What habits, pains, or bright moments of your life are still with you? Do you recall them once in a while or daily, and if so, how do they affect you?
5.What are the things and who are the people in your life that you are happy with or unhappy with?
6.Who are your relatives, and how are they related to you?
7.In what ways did the Gospel inform your life?
8.What are some verses or passages in the Bible you often return to?
You can add more questions to this list, but this should get you going.
Stage 2. Craft your narrative.
At this stage your job is to select the most important little stories, episodes of memory, and experiences from your life. Take those memories and experiences and look at them to see if there is any common pattern or thread in them.
Do you see some pain? If so, what is it? Do you see happiness? If so, where does it come from? Write those episodes down. After you write them down, see who is at the center of these narratives? Is it God? You? Another person? If you can, write at least two versions of the story. Then discover the conflict and the main players in it.
Every life has conflicts, and yours is one of them. If you cannot discover a conflict, however small it may be, you may want to write the narrative again or return to the “before the craft” stage. The conflict does not need to be a big one. It can be small. What matters is that it has some role to play in your development and shows up in later stages of your life. The conflict and your reaction to the conflict is where the character matures. Conflict may lead to the demise of a person, but it also may transform. After you find the conflict, try to evaluate it by asking similar questions listed below.
What kind of conflict was it? Personal? Public? Person vs person? Person vs society?
Was it resolved? If so, how? Did you learn anything from that conflict? If you did not gain anything, then why?
If you discovered several conflicts, then which one of them was the most painful that transformed you?
Can you change your perspective on these conflicts if you feel like you are the one who was victimized? Is conflict like a “winner takes all, and loser loses all” game for you, or is it like “winner wins some, but loser wins something too” game?
How did the main conflict affect the people around you?
Find biblical metaphors, images, and stories that resonate with your narrative.
Your story may have one or two ideas or a common theme that connects well with some biblical themes. The Bible has many themes all connected to one God’s story, so there is a high probability that you will find a connection. The connection does not need to be an exact replication or an explicit similarity. It can be a connection through perspective, through an image, or through a word. It can be a connection through a name or the general plot of a biblical narrative. For example, the suffering of one of my relatives is a biblical theme that I use to start telling my story because my journey to God began with that person’s suffering. God’s silence can be another theme if you prayed and never received a response. Gifts of the Spirit you received (like the gifts of King David) can be another connecting point.
The connections you will find can be deep or superficial, but don’t worry about that right now. Just find any connection.
Stage 3. Put your findings together, and make an intelligible story.
In this stage, your job is to put the stories into an orderly fashion. You can do it in your head if you want to, but that is less helpful than visualizing your story on paper. You can use props and other techniques from your writing craft to come up with the order of your story. It could be organized chronologically: first A happened, then B, then C. You can also organize it logically based on some themes: first childhood, then adolescence, then adulthood. You can rearrange certain episodes to increase the effect of the narrative: start with the most recent event that would draw attention and hook the audience, then move towards the distant past by investigating why that event happened and where the roots of it go.
The possibilities here are endless, and the only limit you have would be your imagination. This stage functions as a skeleton for writing the detailed narrative of your life. So ignore the fine tuning and the neat arrangements. Your job in this stage is to come up with a compelling structure that is true to reality but also persuasive.
Stage 4. Write your story’s general outline.
In this stage, you write down your outline which must set up the characters and places, the event that starts things rolling, and the development that moves the story toward a culmination in conflict. Conflict will exploit the choices that you or others have to deal with in the story. After that comes the decreasing action where the conflict resolves itself and the story ends.
Now, remember that the narrative you write and tell would end because it is a story, and good, ol’ storytelling (or writing techniques) require a resolution. But your life obviously does not end with the end of the story you tell. So your story’s general outline may include a loose ending. You may even leave some elements of the conflict unresolved.
But write your story. Writing will slow you down and make you pay attention to your word choices. It will function like a guiding post for you in the future.
I believe these tips will help you start and work your way into the wonderful world of storytelling.
Do you have other tips for creating the narrative of your life? If so, comment and share them. Let others benefit from your insights. Also, check posts linked below. They may equip you with useful knowledge for storytelling.