The Importance of Your Story

The last couple of years have seemed really busy to me. Almost like a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve moved a few times, I’ve had my kids, I’ve written some books (or tried to write some books), and I’ve changed jobs a few times. Things haven’t always been easy, but I’ve still come a long way.

I work with high schoolers now on a regular basis. I love them. They give me hope that I wasn’t actually as much of a freak as I thought I was in high school. But working with them and talking with them, I’ve realized a couple of good things, and the most important one revolves around story, and not just because I teach literature or enjoy history.

One of the things we are going through right now is the examining story vs. truth. Stories are important; in fact, it can be the most important thing which binds people together from different backgrounds, cultures, and lands. We can understand each other through story. You can add to your own story by reading others. To this day, many of my favorite books I read growing up still remain with me in some form; for example, The Giver reaffirmed my affinity for music, and for me, to this day, music is proof of God and heaven (good music, anyway).

Stories help us make sense of the truth of our lives. While the idea (courtesy of Francis Schaeffer) of “true truth” deserves its own blog discussion, I’m going to talk about what happens when we allow bias into our stories.

I tell my students – at any age – to look for bias. The idea of postmodernism I agree with (I suppose there has to be some good from it) is that everyone has a unique perspective on life. We are unable to be completely objective with our own lives; same thing happens with our writing, which is why all authors need a good editor. That’s why I’m asking this question to you today:

Whose bias are you allowing to have say in your story? 

Because the truth of the matter is, life is not easy to sum up in a cute little parable or a short little story. Our lives are stories of a grand scale; we are continuing the plot line over and over, again and again. A good book will have a specific plot line; a good story of a life has an ongoing stream of them. Don’t believe me? I find it too much of a coincidence that your heartbeat and a story’s plot line are very similar.

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So, who is influencing the story you tell yourself?

Is it an advertising company? These are usually the easiest ones to spot. They say you’re too fat, you’re too ugly, your hair is too messy, your underwear’s too scratchy, your car is too old, or your life is not complete without XYZ. We can even make this uglier, by bringing politics into it. What does this political party want you to believe, and why? What story are they telling you?

Or maybe it’s more personal. Is it your family? This is a harder one to judge, because chance are, your family does want something like the best for you. Your parents want you to go to college? Your brother wants you to go to a concert with him? Your sister wants you to introduce her to your best friend? How much of your life is spent trying to please just them, and not you?

And you can’t forget about professional influences. Think about your teachers. I say this as one. As an English teacher, it would be a dream for all of my students to want to grow up and be writers or college professors or even educational publishers. I want that maybe, but you might not.

But it’s up to you to let me know that. And the same goes for deciding how much you are going to listen to the others.

There’s a couple of things I’d like you to take away with this.

1. Your Story about Yourself Needs Honesty Even if Objectivity is Not Completely Possible

You need to be honest about yourself. What you want can easily twist what you see.

For example, we live in a world where the ‘victim’ card is played, often at the expense of real victims, in order for a person to get his or her way. Victims inspire pity, and pity is a one-way relationship. We need to be honest about what is right, and what is wrong, and how there are rules we need to follow. We can’t be like Batman, as much as we may want to be – operating outside the law to protect the law.

2. You Have to Own Your Story

Many teenagers I talk with are struggling to find their independence from their families as they grow older. It’s hard to do that sometimes; there are relationships in life where things don’t change, and people don’t want them to change, either. Sometimes people will fight against the changes you’re trying to make in life because they don’t want to be ‘uncomfortable’ with you.

But even as an adult, I still have trouble sometimes asserting myself from my parents’ desires. I love my mother, and she loves my son, and she loved his hair long. I mentioned about getting it shortened for the summer, and she was appalled. I did it anyway, but still squirmed when I told her about it. And I am in my mid-twenties. You’d think by now I would be better off with that stuff. Nope.

3. You Own Your Story; Sometimes that Means Protecting It

I see a very stark difference in protecting yourself and attacking someone. One is defensive. If you decide to go to NYU after generations of your family going to UCLA, that’s your decision, and part of your story, your choices. You have to defend yourself. You don’t have to attack the people who are attacking you. You have to watch out for those who would manipulate your decisions. Bribery, personal attacks, shaming…all these things work in manipulating people to do what they want.

4. Changing a Story is Not Always Going to Be Personal; Sometimes It is Done on a Larger Scale

In his acclaimed film, America: Imagine the World Without Her, Dinesh D’Souza examines this idea of story manipulation on an international level. He looks at the story of Howard Zinn’s analysis of America in his work, “A People’s History of the United States,” where he asserts America is a great oppressor. Zinn’s analysis and D’Souza’s vision of America contrast sharply. Does it matter? Yes, entirely. If you see America as an oppressor, a nation of deceit and theives, your response to it is going to be very different than if you see America as the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

The same thing happens all the time with God.

People who see God as a tyrant, a bully, someone who denies people pleasure, a deity who must have his lust for blood satisfied through sacrifices will respond differently to him than those who see God as a generous, loving father, someone who gives graciously, and ruler who rules heaven justly.

When people say “Follow your heart,” I sometimes cringe, because it more or less means follow what you feel. I would rather people say, “Find your story,” or “Write your story,” instead. Stories are much more than emotions; they are new paths that require the participation of more than just the heart.

I’m still writing my story. The story of my life, my family, my career, my work, my art…It’s still coming along. Sometimes I am a bad writer and I neglect my ‘subplots,’ or different characters. Sometimes I make bad choices, or silly choices. Sometimes the supernatural interrupts my plans or changes my intent. But I have not yet written “the end.” The book remains open on my life’s story, so I will continue on.

 

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