a better story

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I am happy to report I finished a book today.

After I wrote my Morning Pages, I turned to the past page of How Not to Be Afraid and read the last chapter and epilogue, as well as the blessings Gareth Higgins uses to close the book, in good Irish fashion.

I read with a pen in my hand, not only to underline but also to write words and lines from the book in the margins so I can find them on return visits. After I got to the end, I leafed back through the book to read some of the things I had recopied. The heart of Gareth’s book turns around how we tell the story of our lives, both individually and together, along with the idea that there is a better story to tell than the one we are telling right now. One of the things I rewrote in the margin was

The stories we tell shape how we experience everything. When we tell a diminished story, we make a diminished life.

I started the book in early June, right before I went to be the camp pastor for Wilshire Baptist Church’s youth camp. The book was my primary sermon fodder for the week, and those sentences were a part of my sermon the first night, along with a question adapted from something else Gareth wrote a few pages later:

How do we tell a story that makes the world less broken and more beautiful?

Asking that question three months ago with a group of teenagers in the Ozark foothills was one thing; asking it tonight in the middle of difficult days is another because I feel more in touch with the brokenness of things and, because of that, I am more attune to the need for a more beautiful story.

To diminish something is to “make it seem less impressive or less valuable.”

How we tell our stories reveal how we experience the world and ourselves in it. As I think about these last few days, I am aware of the ways in which I have told a diminished story. Part of the reason I have not written as much on this blog, for example, is I have let myself tell a diminished story about it. I have told myself that only a handful of folks are reading it. Yet, when I looked tonight, my “failure to thrive” post has over nine hundred views and thirty one comment. I know those are not huge numbers in the social media universe, but they are life-changing for me, and not because of the totals. The story they tell me is one of connection, of belonging, which is the most valuable story I know. It is a story that makes the world less broken and more beautiful.

I have written a lot about my depression over the years. Much of the writing was a search, on my part, for metaphors that would help me get some sort of grip on this part of me that doesn’t feel like part of me–this diminishing force. One of the stories I have told before came back to me as I have felt the outpouring of love and support from you.

Almost twenty years ago to the day, Ginger and I were getting ready for church. I was struggling to find the energy to even get dressed. I knew I was depressed, but I had no idea what was happening to me. Right before we left for church, she said, “I need to ask you to do a hard thing this morning. I think you need to ask for prayer yourself; I can’t do it for you.”

When the time came in our service for prayer requests, I mustered up whatever it was I had to muster up and said, “I need prayer. I need help. I am really depressed and I don’t know what to do about it,” and I sat down. At coffee hour after worship, five people came up to me and said, “I feel the same way but I had no idea we could talk about it out loud.” I had one of those pay-attention-this-is-important moments as they spoke. I realized I had found my first foothold in my free fall: if I would tell the story I would know I was not alone.

One of the stories we can tell that makes the world less broken and more beautiful is that shared suffering creates the ties that bind. We are all hurting. The diminished story says we need to keep it to ourselves. The better story is, as Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese,”

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Many years ago, Billy Crockett and I wrote a song about friendship and what it takes to stay friends. Actually, a couple of them, but this one, “Friends at Last,” said

when the snow falls on your roof
and my world feels colder
when you know without any proof
that you have my shoulder
when the fear of pain comes to break us
it’s the years of strain that will make us
friends at last

In the middle of our mutilated world, we have beautiful stories to tell and to hear of the tenacious power of love and what it means to belong to one another, and to the world. Mary Oliver ends her poem with these words:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I love to tell that story.

Peace,
Milton

11 COMMENTS

  1. Re: “Part of the reason I have not written as much on this blog, for example, is I have let myself tell a diminished story about it. I have told myself that only a handful of folks are reading it.”: FWIW: I ALWAYS read your blog posts and am happy when I see you’ve written one.

  2. Another use of the word: “Diminished” (occasionally called ‘demented’) chords beg to be resolved because of the dissonance- I think about it like going from off balance to balanced; making chaos into order. The important part is that it’s moving on… Hollies “The Air That I Breathe” is an example.

  3. The numbers may look small but the impact is mighty! I shared your “This is Bethlehem” post with a group a few years ago (with proper attribution, of course) and just last December someone told me that they were thinking about it again as Christmas approached. As was I. Your work ripples out in ways you’ll never know. And I’m so grateful that you keep sharing your stories.

    I keep a note clipped inside the journal I use in the mornings that says, “Depression lies.” (I’ve seen it elsewhere, but first heard it myself from Jenny Lawson.) It reminds me that depression is the ultimate unreliable narrator and I shouldn’t always believe what it says – even when I’m the one saying it.

  4. I discovered that admitting my depression allowed me to find the help I needed. Thank you for being so open as it has allowed so many to feel connection and to help you know that YOU ATE LOVED!

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