I carry my story with me all the time: it is the container for the events of my life. The shape of this container is my interpretation of who I am. Over the past four years, this container cracked open, and I spilled out into what felt like a void.
I have a story to tell
My whole life I had been trying to get somewhere else. I had known myself as the person who works to grow into an improved, more capable, more secure me. The effort to do this was me. I made continual progress, exceeding the external measures that I had set for success, but they never delivered the satisfaction and rest I sought.
In America we are taught to dream. I dared to dream. I dared to do. I did, and I was proud of what I did. Then, in the midst of achieving professional success and financial security, these ways of orienting myself stopped working. Without criteria to set the agenda for my life and define who I was, I no longer recognized myself. Every day since I turned fifteen years old I had waged an all-consuming, private struggle to gain security and respect. Twenty-three years later, having attained a greater measure of both than I ever imagined, I felt profoundly lost.
It’s not the story I carried around with me for most of my life
I do not know where I’m headed or what future forms my story will take. What I do know is that I have an unquenchable (I have tried) desire to understand and tell the story that brought me to this point–even though my evaluative mind does not think it is worth telling. From the perspective of my familiar, striving self, I still need a lot of work to become presentable to the world. That view is still with me every day, and every time I sit down to write, it screams in protest that I should stop navel-gazing and accomplish something worthwhile.
The parts of us that scream need a hug, but they do not deserve an audience. When I step outside of the old, cracked container that used to hold me, I gain an unshakable insight: none of us earn the right to tell our story. Instead, we must begin to feel the contours of the container that has held us, examining those walls by exploring the forces that formed them. Then we must press steadily on the walls, drawn by the gravitational force of all we have exiled outside the container–outside this self we insist on. Eventually, the container will crack and we are reunited with the lost pieces of ourselves. We no longer feel alone because we are no longer confined to that container. Life begins to flow between shapes, boundless and exceedingly beautiful–not because we have achieved greatness but simply because we are whole again, and whole people are beautiful.
Learn by telling
The exploration and testing of our stories is what gives them merit. A favorite teacher of mine likes to say that as we learn how we have been characterized by our past, we also learn that it need not define us. Another teacher summarizes this way: “accept it more, believe it less.” We are defined by that which operates outside of our awareness because we are left without choice; only unconscious reaction is possible. I need to see the ways I have been characterized, shaped, habituated to think about myself and my life. I need to accept that this is so. Then, and only then, can I begin to stop believing this is who I really am–and choose something else.
Who have I been? Who do I intend to become? These are thrilling questions to ask. Choice, then, is the reason I am writing my story. And the reason I hope you will write yours too.