We have often spoken of our story and last week spoke of our inner story, the inner world of our sacred self as it is experienced and felt from inside ourselves. Today we will add a few thoughts on how we long for our story to be part of a larger story which also provides, sometimes for good or ill, an interpretation of our own story.
We name this inner sacred world of our life and experience to ourselves and in part to one another. Our awareness is framed within a language we inherit and try in some way to make our own. Through that language–whether of prose or poetry, story or music or other art form– we discover who we are and express something of who we are to one another. The challenge is to name and express that experience as truthfully and fully and deeply as possible. Our perspective has been to start from the conviction of the sacred worth of each and every person and of all that is.
John O’Donohue, whom we quoted last week, writes that “all thought is about putting a face on experience.” He adds that each of us is a custodian of our inner world. If our thought is open to wonder, it will be kind and compassionate. He writes further: “No one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression.”
In a similar vein, Sam Keen, a spiritual writer, notes: “Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”
These words of spiritual writer, Sam Keen, reflect the importance we have given in these reflections to story. Our personal stories and the stories that we hear help us not only to name our experience, but also to share it. It is often is sharing our story that we begin to understand something of who we are and our connectedness with others and the world around us. The story of Hansel and Gretel tells us that despite our experiences of rejection and possessiveness, we can still find a sacred home within ourselves, endowed with many treasures, and become a home for others as well. The stories of King Midas and Rumpelstiltskin suggest that love is more precious than any possession or wealth.
I recently began to read a book, The Dark Interval, containing letters of the poet, Rilke, to people who had suffered a severe loss. In these letters, Rilke helps people to find words to name their experience. In the Preface, the editor, Ulrich Baer, summarizes this approach: “Stay with your pain, and instead of shrinking away from it, use it to forge another path back to life.”
In speaking of experience and story, theologian Tad Guzie says that some experiences come with a greater awareness, and they are significant and can even shape our lives. We might think of a childhood friendship that persists into adulthood, a book that gave us a new way of seeing, a person who was a model of goodness for us. Secondly, Guzie holds, these lived experiences are then retold in the form of a story. “Storytelling, he says, “is the most basic way of naming an experience.” Thirdly, Guzie adds, there is need of a context or setting where personal stories become part of a larger story (of family, community, culture, religious tradition). These latter stories shape the interpretation and meaning given to our personal story.
At the same time, the script or story that we have inherited may not be true to who we are. This is the theme of the play Death of a Salesman and the novel Something Happened. The main characters in both stories inherit a script that fails to respond to their full humanity. As a result, they lead impoverished and even self-destructive lives. Keen stresses that we need to discover the actual script that we are following, assess it, reaffirm what is true and valuable, and discard what is harmful or false. In our perspective, we then need to forge a new script from within that enables us to live truthfully, compassionately, and justly. In Keen’s words: “The task of a life is to exchange the unconscious myth with a conscious autobiography.”
This is not an easy task. Theologian , Richard Rohr, makes a helpful clarification. He speaks of three levels of story: my story, our story, and the story. In effect, he expands on Keen’s and Guzie’s perspectives. The first story, Rohr says, is our private story. The second realm is the story inherited from family, culture, nation, etc. He differentiates this from what he calls the story, the more universal context, the perennial philosophy in which even the second level needs finally to be contained.
What seems to be involved here is that we need not only to get in touch with, name truthfully, and reshape our own story. We also need our story to be part of a larger story that helps us to interpret truly and live out fully our own story. Very often the story we inherit and take for granted is the story of our tribe, our nation, our culture. In doing so, there is a tendency to set our group over against another tribe, in contrast and even opposition to other groups. It easily get into an “us” and “them” mentality in which “others” are regarded as inferior, not fully human, or evil. Such an attitude leads to conflict, discrimination, and warfare.
Political scientist, Michael Ignatieff, speaks of extending our compassion and justice in wider and wider circles, from those near to us to the needs of strangers. The foundation of human rights and responsibilities, for him, is the experience that we share a common humanity. “Human rights, he writes, “derive their force in our conscience from this sense that we belong to one species, and that we recognize ourselves in every single human being we meet.” An intense sense of our own worth is a precondition for recognizing the worth of others, beginning with those that are close to us and moving outwards in ever-wider circles to embrace the needs of strangers. This recognition includes an acknowledgment and respect for diversity. “Human beings clothed, arrayed, disguised even, are the ones who have dignity, not human beings stripped and bare.”
How do we understand our own present story, the inherited story of our group, and the more universal story. This may seem a rather complex task. We may approach it in light of our perspective: the sacred worth of ourselves, of every person, and really of all that is. In this perspective, we may look at our conversations with ourselves and ask if our internal conversations tend to put us down or acknowledge a sacredness deeper than and not taken away by any limitation, mistake, or fault–even if we cannot feel it at any given time. We may also ask of news reports or other television programs the same question of the recognition of our own and others worth.
A further approach is solitude, time spent quietly and reflectively by ourselves. We may also read stories, watch movies, look at art works, listen to music, and then assess whether they speaks to us, name our experience, and stretch our imagination; and especially whether they move us to a sense of our own worth and that of all other beings, and lead us, however slowly and gently, into compassion and justice.
May you more and more come to experience your own story as the unfolding of your own worth, deeper than and not taken away by any limitations, wounds, mistakes, or betrayals. And may the deep self-acceptance the realization of your sacred worth brings free you to become more compassionate and just in the web of your everyday life.
Norman King, February 21, 2022