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What's Your Story?
My earliest memory is peeing into a trashcan. I don’t know how old I was. Old enough to remember it but not old enough to remember how old I was, so maybe 3 or 4. I was in my family’s first house in Charlotte, the first house I can remember, in the corner of the living room by the hallway. I was watching television, and I really, really had to go to the bathroom but also, you know, television. This was before televisions could pause, much less move into the bathroom with you, so I was in a real bind. I guess I couldn’t make it to a commercial break, or maybe I didn’t want to miss the commercials either. A normal kid might have just peed in his pants (or gone to the bathroom), but I was clearly not your average kid. I had a plan. I could watch the show without getting yelled at for making a mess. The trashcan was sort of hidden by the end of the couch, so it seemed like the perfect place to discreetly relieve myself.
Transfixed by Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry or whatever it was, I didn’t quite realize I was standing over the can, pants down, a little trickle of urine plinking on the metal bottom, until someone in the crowded room asked what I was doing. I froze, face red, and looked down. At that point, it occurred to me that I was not supposed to pee into a trashcan. Everyone laughed. I don’t remember if I got in trouble, but I was herded off to the bathroom, which was bad enough, while the show carried on.
Now think of a memory from your life. Good or bad, funny or triumphant, tragic or heartbreaking, whatever. Doesn’t have to be your first or most embarrassing. Maybe it was that time you caught a frog in the neighborhood creek and kept it under your bed for a week before your mom found out. Maybe it was seeing the look on your parents’ faces as judges pinned the blue ribbon on your science fair project or getting mobbed by teammates after that epic comeback in the intramural finals. Maybe it was making a fool of yourself on the dance floor at your senior prom or failing your first big test in college. Maybe it was your first date or first kiss or first paycheck or first layoff. Maybe it was the day you got married or the day your dad died.
Do you remember all the details of the scene? Can you see all the players moving along their destined lines? Do your thoughts come streaming back to you, refined by experience and reflection? Can you feel afresh all the emotions washing over you? The pain of loss or the joy of triumph, the nervous anticipation or the tight, tingling shame?
What you remember is a story. It must be. You didn’t think of a math equation or your favorite color or the capital of Assyria, did you? Those are facts, which exist independent of us. As soon as you introduce a character, a perspective that relates to and interacts with and connects the facts, you get a story. A story is the way we experience life. Life is made of facts, but it’s lived in stories. I can describe to you a trashcan—metal, blue, a foot tall, cylindrical—but I can’t tell you how I peed into it with making it into a story.
The way I connect the facts, the details I mention, the thoughts I express, the emotions I invoke, determine the type of story I tell. I presented my childhood memory as a comedy, the humorous misadventure of an oblivious toddler, but I could have told it as a tragedy, a story of enduring shame that has shaped my life and still haunts me today. We all have memories like that. The betrayal of a best friend, the disappointment of a parent, the embarrassment of a public failure, the pain of a broken heart. Or the glory of a big win, the high of an adventure, the peace of feeling accepted, the joy of loving and being loved. So much of our lives is chasing after those memories, running from our fear and shame, striving to prove ourselves worthy of love and respect, trying to recapture what we’ve lost, searching for the experience that will make us feel alive again. The way we interpret our past, interact with the present, and work for the future affects everything we do and say and think and feel. It is necessarily a story. It’s the story of our lives.
So what’s your story? Do you know what it is? Are you the one writing it? Or are you living someone else’s story, someone else’s fears and expectations and dreams and desires? That’s not a place you want to be. If you aren’t writing your story, how can you be sure it’s a good one? Maybe it’s a dark story. Maybe it’s a tragedy. Maybe you’re the victim, destined to suffer at the hands of an evil system. Maybe your just a bit player, living in the hero’s shadow, subject to their overbearing force of will, soon to exit the stage or fade into the background. Or maybe you’re the villain, lashing out in bitterness against the world and everyone who tries to stop you.
You are not the center of the universe, but you are the main character in the story of your own life. Or at least you should be. You can decide the meaning of your past and set the course toward the future. You can make your own goals and work to fulfill them. And while you can’t choose the obstacles you will face, you can choose whether you will turn aside or attempt to scale them. While you can’t always choose which trials will set you back and which will end in success, you can choose whether to see them as the random, aimless wanderings through the underworld of despair and death or as the necessary chapters in the grand journey of redemption and life.
You can choose to be the hero who wrestles with the dragons of trauma and disappointment, who scales the walls of injustice and suffering, who tempers himself in the fire of failure and defeat, who avails himself of every privilege and blessing, who returns home at last to share the spoils of victory, who runs and leaps and scrapes and crawls with every bit of strength to never stopping moving toward their ultimate goal, their greater purpose. All those memories and possessions and experiences and relationships are the raw materials, the words that you can use to build your tale. Many such things come your way, but your life is the story you tell about it, and you get to write it. So make it an adventure.
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