How Accurate Are Your Stories?

I was thinking the other day about a time when I was a young kid playing on my street with a neighborhood friend. I recalled that we were standing in the middle of Meadowbrook Road when we were stopped in our tracks by a strange sight – the beginning and end of rain. That is to say, as best I recall, we saw a wall of rain a few houses down – one part of the road was getting wet, the other part was not.

We instinctively looked to each other and said, “Let’s run!” So we took off to meet the rain where it was. But something happened. In my initial memory, I thought I was carrying a glass bug jar and must have dropped it and cut my hand. But then I realized, wait, I wasn’t carrying the jar. My friend was carrying the jar, and in this haste he dropped it to the street, where it broke and cut his foot.

Basically I don’t know what happened. The bug jar dropped and broke – I think that’s true – but no one may have been cut. All I know is, we did not get to run to the rain. By then, it had come to us.

It really is hard to get the stories straight – the ones from decades ago, sure, but even the ones from today.

In fiction, there is something called “an unreliable narrator.” This is the character that is telling the story, but as you read, you begin to realize you can’t trust his or her point of view. The author will lead you through the story in such a way that you can eventually figure out what’s going on. Just don’t take this character at his word.

Any of us, in a sense, can be an unreliable narrator as we tell the stories of our lives. There are times, in fact, when you shouldn’t take me at my word – especially when I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m sorry to tell you, however: I might not know when those times are.

You can imagine the movie hero George Bailey saying to himself, “I’m such a loser. I should have invested in plastics with Sam Wainwright. I should have left Bedford Falls years ago. But noooo…. I had to stay here and end up with nothing to show for my life but that piddling building and loan business.”

You may know of this character from It’s a Wonderful Life and be familiar with the frustrations he felt for sacrificing his dreams to attend to his neighborly duty. Yet in the heartwarming scene toward the end of the movie, a previously despondent and despairing George Bailey returns to his family overjoyed.

At that moment, however, not a single external factor has changed. He’s still facing the consequences of $8,000 in missing funds. The sheriff is still there to arrest him. He still faces scandal and ruin. But none of these things are enough to dampen his enthusiasm, for he has seen how he has made a big difference in his community during the small acts of everyday life. His perspective has changed.

The rest of us living in the real world don’t get a visit from a wings-seeking angel named Clarence to show us what life would have been like if we hadn’t been here. But most of us, in any case, could benefit from a changed perspective.

So, what I’m saying is: if you don’t like what you’re hearing in the stories you tell yourself, take heart. Because you might be an unreliable narrator. If you tell yourself “it’s no use” or “nothing will ever change” or “it’s too late,” the truth is: you might not know what you’re talking about.

Think of it this way: God, the author of life, is weaving His larger story through our individual lives, and we can’t always trust our own point of view about what’s happening. We just see a little bit of the picture. And how we describe that picture can change.

Some years ago, at First Baptist, I sat in on a series of “story listening” sessions led by my minister Donna McConnico. She had read a book or heard a speaker on this topic, and that led to her discussion of how people are always telling their themes, regardless of the story they are telling. And if you listen to the themes, you can get a picture of what’s really on their mind. She gave us some assignments so that we could practice our skills. It was fortuitous that I joined that study because I continue to be influenced by the concept.

Back to that snippet of memory of my unreliable narration. In those few frames from childhood in my old neighborhood, I actually see something quite nice: joy, freedom, friendship, mystery and risk. I was having fun with a friend. We were unrestrained by difficult duty or boundary. We saw something amazing, and we went after it.

What themes are you telling in your stories? If you don’t like what you hearing in your head, can you pull back for a better point of view?

Enjoy your magnificent journey.

– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 2, Issue 15

P.S. I’ve got some pressing deadlines in my copywriting work, so I’m going to take next week off for this newsletter. See you in May.