My first life ambition–well, before wanting to be a Killer Whale Trainer and long, long before ever dreaming of being a psychologist–was to be an author. As a kid I devoured books and filled endless spiral bound notebooks with whimsical stories about adventure and friendship. There’s a continuing thread of interest in stories in my career as a psychologist as I love to learn about people’s life stories and explore together how to improve that life story.
I just finished an inspiring book that explores how the elements of a good story are the same principles that make for a meaningful life. This got me thinking more about our life stories, how we live them, and how we shape meaning in them and live with purpose, and intentionality.
I started thinking about how we could divide our lives into two types of sub-stories within our greater life story: the stories we choose and the stories that choose us.
The Stories We Choose
Carl Rogers, one of the fathers of modern psychology, developed a theory in which he described that healthy (self-actualized) people, naturally move toward fulfilling their innate potentials. In fact, Rogers believed it is a basic instinct for us to work toward succeeding at our highest capacity.
When we introspect about our own experiences, doesn’t this ring true? Can you feel the internal yearning for something better and greater for yourself and your life? I describe myself as a chronic malcontent, so perhaps I feel this yearning and drive more acutely, but I witness it in others all around me, all the time. Isn’t this yearning part of the drive we feel to set new goals, embark on new adventures, and push ourselves beyond what we feel is comfortable?
In “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” the author, Donald Miller, sums up what makes a good story in a single sentence, “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it” (Miller, 2009, p. 48).
Highlighting Our Stories
This wanting is an important concept as what we want in our lives highlights our personal values and drives our behaviors. “I began to realize the stuff I spent money on indicated the stories I was living.
By that I mean the stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions…The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life” (Miller, 2009, p. 121-125).
I love that last point: if what we spend our money, energy, and time on doesn’t make for a good story, it doesn’t make fora meaningful life. When we choose values and behaviors that make for a good story, our lives become richer and more meaningful. This type of living will build on itself as we are in touch with that innate part of ourselves that craves more for our lives.
Choose Your Stories
“…I found myself wanting even better stories. And that’s the thing you’ll realize when you organize your life into the structure of story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time” (Miller, 2009, p. 154-155).
These parts of our lives we get to choose. We get to choose to dream, set goals and take risks. This is the inventive, creative, fun, thrilling (albeit sometimes terrifying) part of our lives. This is where we decide to train for a race to support a good cause, to make and execute a plan to return to school, to date again after heartbreak, to plan an epic adventure, to writing a book. Intentionally choosing a life with more meaning, guided by our deeply held values, shapes our identity and story to be empowered and memorable.
Then there are the parts of our life story that we don’t choose…
The Stories That Choose Us
Life has a way of presenting obstacles, challenges, and hardships for all of us. While we may be on our own quests to create our best selves, life also seems to have it’s own agenda to teach us about ourselves and our capabilities. There are so many elements of our stories that we have no control over and experiences that we do not choose, or want. These include, but are not limited to, mental illness, social rejection, loss of valued relationships, betrayal, economic hardship, abuse, prejudice, physical illness, trauma and physical loss.
While we don’t seek these experiences, and we don’t have control over whether they happen to us or not, we do have power in how we ultimately react to them.
I love this quote by Victor Frankl, “…it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life…Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before each individual.” (Emphasis added).
Dealing With Unexpected and Unwanted Stories
I speak from personal experience that it is so easy to lament and rage against the unjust, unfair and horrible things that happen in our lives. When tragedy befell my life five years ago, it was a painful learning curve for me to swallow my bitterness and push past despair. I had to choose to recognize the gifts that can follow in the wake of tragedy.
However, receiving those gifts depended completely on my openness to being taught from life about what I was capable of overcoming. The lessons I learned and the strength I developed did not happen overnight. In fact, it’s a journey I’m still on and will likely be on, for perhaps, the rest of my life.
But five years later I feel my outlook on life, meaning, the goodness of others, and my own capacities has been powerfully, positively, and irrevocably shaped by that unwanted traumatic experience. I don’t think I could have learned the lessons I’ve gained so far in any other way, and for that, I am grateful.
So whether we are living the elements of our stories that we choose, or facing the experiences we didn’t choose (or both), there is power and meaning in it all. To quote Donald Miller again, “The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle” (2009, p. 177).
Miller, D. (2009). A million miles in a thousand years: How I learned to live a better story. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, INC.