Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Better Story

I bought a Kindle Touch a couple of weeks ago, mainly because I have limited storage space for books in my small house, and I refuse to give away or trade any more of my long-cherished volumes. Okay, so one could successfully argue about how many copies of The Lord of the Rings or Stephen King novels any person needs, but that isn't really the point. The point is I that love books - I love to read - but my busy lifestyle and limited space dictated the need to come up with a better solution or just stop reading entirely. Hence, the Kindle. The first book I purchased for it was Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Last summer I received a copy of Blue Like Jazz for my birthday, and I fell in love with Miller's casual narrative style and his deeply personal relationships with God, the world, and the people who inhabit it. A Million Miles quickly became a book I just couldn't put down. In it, Miller talks about what it is like to be given the opportunity to edit one's own life and how that opened his eyes to the idea that he wasn't living a very good or meaningful story. He began to live more purposefully, using some simple elements that he learned about what makes stories interesting. As I read about Mr. Miller's unfolding experience, I realized that I, too, had a similar revelation a while back, and that it had - for a time - changed my life.

About five years ago, I sat at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee and decided that my life had no purpose because I had been waiting for things to happen to me instead of making them happen for me. That realization made it possible for me to lose 130 pounds and go back to college as a way of reclaiming my life from the chaos and distractions that had taken over. I had lost my purpose. I had lost my way. In understanding that I could determine my own experience, I found or possibly forged a path that actually led somewhere. In the years since then I have once again become lost. Reading A Million Miles helped me remember what it felt like to live with purpose, to create a worthwhile story for myself.

This realization and remembrance dove-tailed perfectly with this year's Lenten sacrifice, which is to stop lying to myself. Until I promised to give it up, I never understood just how many lies I tell myself in the course of a day. I tell myself that my personal decisions only affect me. That is a lie; the people I invite into my life and the choices I make regarding relationships affect my daughters almost as much as they affect me. I tell myself that I am somehow responsible for getting others to make beneficial changes for themselves. That is totally untrue; if there is one thing I learned from marriage, it's that you can't change another person, and you are not at fault when they refuse to help themselves. I invalidate my own pain by telling myself it doesn't matter that I hurt - it doesn't matter that I'm lonely, that being a single parent is hellishly hard, that some relationships are causing harm rather than joy. I insist to myself that I can handle the stress of full-time work, full-time school, and full-time parenting on my own with help from no one. I tell myself that relationships can be rebuilt even when trust is gone. I demand this level of perfection from myself because I think I should be that perfect, damn it!

But the truth is, no one is that perfect. No one can gracefully or successfully manage a life like the one I tell myself I should lead. The truth, now that I am forced to admit it to myself, is that I am tired. I am sad. I am lonely. I need a break. I need help. I need support. I need to be able to trust for relationships to work. I need the space to be imperfect and to know that it is okay if I go to bed early sometimes, if I miss a meeting occasionally, if I can't meet someone else's needs or demands, or if I go down to the absolute last minute on a homework deadline. A better life-story would allow for these moments. A better life-story would build in fail-safes and support-structures that would take some of the stress and pressure away. A better life-story would still be filled with conflict but would also provide incentives to overcoming that conflict on a journey toward some meaningful goal, not just more of the same day-in, day-out cycle of struggling to stay level and then collapsing with exhaustion at 10:30 every night. A better life-story would acknowledge the wonder and beauty that God brings to my existence just by the fact of his never-ending presence and love.

Telling myself the truth means I have to admit that I am responsible for the shape my life has taken. It also means remembering that once upon a time, I told an incredible story full of conflict and the overcoming of it; a story of personal success and deep spiritual gain. Once, I lived in a better story. I can do that again, if I choose.

So here's to you, Mr. Miller. Thank you for reminding me that there is something more - that God wants more for me - for all of us - than empty experiences stitched together with threads of meaningless distractions. Thank you helping me realize that I do have the power to write - and to live - a better story.

The next installment will be coming soon.

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