Shaping Our Life Story

Last week, we used the image of the eyes through which we look at life and suggested that we see most clearly when we look through the eyes, not of fear or hostility, but of compassion. This compassion begins with our own selves and extends outwardly in wider and wider circles.

We have also spoken about being in touch with our own feelings, or we might speak of our deeply felt experiences. Almost as important is the naming of these experiences, as truthfully as possible.

One personal experience I have often mentioned humorously, with which most of you are familiar, is the experience at the age of six of being hit by a truck, from which, I often added, I never recovered. In point of fact, however, that experience has had a profound impact.

I had no recollection of the actual incident, after awakening in the Sick Children’s Hospital, where I remained for about two weeks. A few days after returning home, I was allowed to get up. I was delighted, but took two steps and fell. I could not walk. I still recall the vivid impression of utter surprise, total disbelief, and sheer terror. Very soon, I was walking again as usual, but I have never forgotten how fragile and vulnerable life can be, and how utterly precious. The birth of my younger brother three years later with a chronic heart defect, and the subsequent heart surgery at the age of 4½ that allowed him to live for 26 years, only reinforced that impression.

In those early years were planted and took root the seeds of awareness that life cannot be taken for granted, that it is a precious and fragile gift to be cherished, appreciated and shared, and that we need always to have a concern for the most vulnerable in our midst. This perspective certainly has elements of both strength and weakness, both of which are probably always active in our lives, whatever script we are following.

I think that each of our lives does follow a certain script, a story in the background of our minds that influences how we experience and interpret ourselves, others, the world around us, and the events of our lives. In that script we see ourselves as having a certain role, so to speak. We follow a certain image of ourselves, perhaps as a hero or heroine, perhaps as a bystander or even a victim in our own lives.

A key question concerns where we get the image of ourselves and the stories we live by. Initially, I believe, it comes from how we are treated as a child and beyond and from the stories we are exposed to from family, culture, nation, and the like. One author, John Navone, puts it this way: “Who I am in large part depends upon who I am told I am. The creative freedom to shape my own self-identity … to take responsibility for the story my life is telling … comes only with increasing maturity.”

For example, our image of land is we are influenced profoundly by being exposed to the Canadian story as opposed to the USA story: an overarching horizon or an ever-receding frontier, encompassing plain. The land becomes, respectively, an infinite background in whose shadow we stand, but which we never conquer; or a a boundary to push against and expand beyond and overcome. One personal result was that the title of a new course proposal was changed from “new frontiers” to “new horizons” to reflect this difference.

While we inherit a certain image and script, we are increasingly challenged to become aware of these and perhaps to modify them. What is really crucial is to have an understanding of ourselves and script that does enable us and help us to see ourselves and life truthfully and in depth, and to live out our personal relational, and societal life accordingly.

We need images and stories that are not superficial, naive, warped or destructive, but that take into account all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures. We need a vision of life (a script, story) that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys, to survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and to build our world. And while taking into account all this complexity, it needs to affirm as the basis of all else our own sacred worth and the sacredness of all else (even when conflict ands opposition are involved).

How do we arrive at a creative and complex image and story? There seem to be many mutually inclusive avenues. One is the process of self-reflection, usually in solitude. The poet Rilke says: “Go within yourself and probe the depth from which your life springs.” Another is the experience of friendship, the kind that allows and fosters the trust that permits vulnerability. Here too Rilke says that authentic love consists of two solitudes that border, protect, and greet each other.”

Both of these pathways would require a great deal of further elaboration. A third way is through the great literature of humankind, as well as the other arts, such as music, sculpture, painting, architecture, photography, and the like.

One example is the story of Hansel and Gretel. The story reflects a historical background in which poverty, blended families, and child abuse have been present. It begins with children cast out with only a crust of bread. They are deprived of both food and belonging, the physical resources that allow us to survive, to stay alive; and the caring that allow us to be alive, to live meaningfully. After many trials, they discover jewels hidden in the house of the witch. Without venturing into a more detailed exploration, the underlying theme is that it is possible to grow out of and beyond negative situations, and to discover deeper than all else within us, a beauty and worth (imaged by the jewels) that is a source of survival and meaning, not only for ourselves, but also those whose lives intersect in some way with our own.

An article in Homemakers magazine many years ago, spoke of beauty as seeming to flow from a vast reservoir of spiritual beauty, to reach past all our defences, and to touch the core of the condensed self. Once a young woman, who was to sing at a wedding for which Lorraine was playing, came to our home to rehearse. She sang Going Home, the spiritual. My son, then three, was deeply moved. He asked if it was a sad song. Lorraine explained that it was sad in that the person was away from home, but is was joyful with the expectation of going home. In essence she was saying that home is not an external place, but a place within that is deeper than and encompasses both the joys and sorrows of live. I would add that home is that place within where our sense of sacred worth is deeper than and able to encompass all the light and shadow of our selves and our lives. Music that is beautiful is able to reach that core that carries the tears of both joy and sorrow, and is the place beyond tears.

May you all come more and more peacefully to your own home, and be more fully at home to yourselves, and become a place of home to others as well.

Norman King, March 08, 2021.