The Novel of Your Life

There is a story that I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.

One time, a young girl in the audience asked about the turtle and the earth. If the earth was on the back of a turtle, what was below the turtle? Another turtle, the storyteller told her. And below that turtle? Another turtle. And below that? Another turtle.

The girl began to laugh, enjoying the game, I imagine. So how many turtles are there? She wanted to know. The storyteller shrugged. No one knows for sure, he told her, but it’s turtles all the way down.

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.

What I just read was the opening of Thomas King’s book, The Truth About Stories. Of the 542,000 books I’ve acquired during seminary, this is probably my favorite.

King invites us all on a journey of story, as told by a Native American living in 21stcentury America. King begins each essay more or less the same way, with the turtles. And he then finishes each essay with this charge: “The story I just told you? It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard it. You’ve heard it, now.”

This is the kind of book you wish you could have written. This is the kind of book I wish I was smart enough to write.

See, the first time I read it, I missed something. Why did he start with the turtles and end with “it’s your story, now”, when every essay they framed was wildly different? I like to think, now, that it’s because the essays are not different. Different names, different places, different drama, but always the same pain, always the same hope.

Which invites the question: despite our different “frames”, are our stories really any different?

Historian Joseph Campbell might argue that they’re not. Most stories are the same — they follow a certain plot, with very few novel twists, very few true surprises.

I think that there is something deep about this insight. But it’s kind of like saying: “You are unique. Just like everyone else.”

Your story, my story, our collective story — they are different. And those differences are worth celebrating, worth highlighting, worth telling. Even if they’re similar. Maybe even because they are similar. The Human Story is one of most compelling that’s ever been told.

Today, I want to talk about that. About stories. Our stories — the stories of our lives. To be fair, it seems like the perfect time of year to do it. It’s still early in the New Year Resolution cycle, and while we have probably all realized that “giving up chocolate for New Years” was not a good idea, many of us are also starting to think that maybe February 1stmight be a much more reasonable time to really get serious about all those New Year’s resolution stuff.

Last week, Reverend Debra invited us to consider the difference between resolutions and intentions, how with resolutions we are celebrating the end of a journey, but with intentions, we’re celebrating the journey itself. “Celebrate the journey” seems like an aphorism, a little bit of wisdom that’s probably attributable to a thousand authors, and probably even more true because of that.

Be more kind. Be more bold. Say “yes”. Care for myself. Feed my heart, mind, and body. 

All great intentions.

The trick for any of these, of course, is mindfulness. Being aware, moment to moment – or, maybe, at least being aware more of our moments than we have been – and then choosing to act in light of our intention.

Meadville-Lombard, my seminary, has a phrase I heard over and over my first year. It goes like this: Act yourself into a new way of thinking. Act yourself into a new way of thinking.

This is a very deliberate jab at Unitarian Universalists. We’re a heady kind of people. Given the chance, we’ll happily talk an idea to death. It’s what we do. But as it is with Resolutions, too much talking and not enough doing can lead to even more talking and no doing. Better, my professors say, to instead start with a little doing.

So, what I want us to do today is to imagine ourselves telling our stories. To imagine ourselves as the author of the novel that is our life. And to begin living in such a way that the novel we write with all of our doings is a novel we would recommend to our friends.

The philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, talks about the meaning of life as a life that is lived with authenticity. Authenticity. The aligning of action with belief and desire, regardless of pressure or influence. For Nietzsche, authenticity was a purely artistic act. Ultimately, we should look to no role models, gather no advice from friends, seek no guidance from heroes, but instead, strike a path as unique as we are. And only then will our work, our life’s work, the work of our life, be truly meaningful. And if the canvass of one’s life is not painted with authenticity, if our life’s dance is not done from a place of authenticity, if the sculpture is not revealing of our own authenticity, if our novel is not written from authenticity, then we should not even bother.

No pressure, right? Thanks, Nietzsche.

If that feels daunting on the one hand, or melodramatic on the other, know that I agree with you. Yes both. But the exercise of reconceiving our life, and our relationship to it, is our job and no one is going to do it for us. And given how busy we are, how distracted, how loaded up each hour, day, week, month and year gets, sometimes a reset is the only way we can see what it is that we are actually doing. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Truth is, we don’t start a project like this from scratch. Metaphorically speaking, the novel that is our life has at least a few pages already filled with furious scribbling, and if we’re asked to share it now, several of those pages would probably need to be heavily redacted. Ahem. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s exactly right. But what I want us to do with the next page is to see, if perhaps for the first time, that what gets put down on that next page is at least in some measure up to us. Better still, that as the author, we get to decide the shape of some of the plot twists in our story.

So, in that spirit, let’s break it down.

Perhaps the best place to start is with a good opening sentence. Now, I’m not sure I should confess how many majors I’ve had as an undergraduate. If there are any here this morning that are currently in college, let me suggest that I may not be the best role model for how to get-through-college-quickly. So, with that said, allow me to reveal that at one point I was an English major, with a concentration in creative writing. During this brief period, one of my teachers assured me that the most important sentence was the first. He said that the first line sets the tone. It’s the hook. The thing that captures the reader. First impressions, and all that. Getting that first sentence just right was critical. [pause] Many years ago, I decided that he was – at best – exaggerating, but I do remember sweating away in his workshops. Anyway, as a nod to that professor and as a possible source of inspiration, here are a couple of good openers that I’ve seen:

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, from Slaughterhouse-Five.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” — J. K. Rowling, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” — Jim Butcher, Blood Rites.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” — Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking.

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.” —Ursula K. LeGuin, from The Left Hand of Darkness.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — from Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.

In the spirit of confession, all of my own opening sentences were a bit overwrought. Again, in that same spirit, I will offer that the younger-me took the idea of “living my life as if I were writing it like a novel” maybe a tad too seriously. For example, one of my old journals actually has the line – “I want to write my deeds in the book of life with words of fire.”

Look, all I can say is that there are worse inspirations than the Lord of the Rings and J. R. R. Tolkien.

But this does bring me to an important point. Not everyone is going to live the life of Alexander the Great, leading their father’s army on a mission of bloody and brutal conquest across the Mediterranean. And not everyone is going to quest into the dark and poisonous lands of Mordor to cast the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom.

And Thank God for that. All that walking!

But just because our lives are not fantastical in scope does not mean that our lives are less worthy, less meaningful, or even less important. “Epic fantasy” is only one type of writing, and trust me, there are a literal ton of great books that are not epic fantasy. To quote the Wizard Gandalf the Grey, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

I take great comfort in those words. And if we think of ourselves as storytellers, and of our lives as the story we are telling, we know that sometimes the most transformative acts, the most powerful, the most disruptive of the status quo, can be small. Small, like the proverbial mustard seed. Small enough, perhaps, to be overlooked.

My old friend Ferris Buehler said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Can I confess something else? This is my greatest fear. This “missing it”. The movie, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, came out when I was a high school junior. I loved that movie. Naturally, I skipped class to go see it. I skipped class that day, not knowing that I was going to see a movie about a guy skipping class. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Ferris Buehler had a much better time skipping class than any of us that skipped class to see him skip class could possibly have had.

The movie was light-hearted, fun, and entertaining. But that’s not all that I took from it. What my 17-year-old-self saw onscreen was that there was another way to be. Here was this image, this deliciously subversive image, of someone unapologetically daring to live a life, fully, every day. And the irony that this message had to be delivered to me in a darkened theater, as entertainment, has not been lost on me. It’s almost as if this sort of living is dangerous. Like it’s the plot of some kind of thriller. How exciting!

Now, no – I’m not advocating skipping school or throwing caution and responsibility to the wind. There are some absolutely stunning novels out there of lives fully lived in the grip of society and “larger concerns”. In perhaps the most important ways, it’s not so much what we do as how we choose to do it. And this is exactly where Rev. Debra’s admonition comes back to us – it’s not the destination that’s important. It’s the journey. And it’s our intention, the paying attention, the being present for the now, that lets the intricacy and the power of our story unfold fully.

As we draw to our close, I want to leave you with another reminder. There really is no such thing as a perfect story. There is always more to do, more to say, more to explore, more to experience. And much to my personal disappointment, at least as far as I know, human beings don’t get sequels.

What I take from all this is that mistakes are going to happen. Like many characters in my favorite books, I am going to get it wrong. We are all going to get it wrong. Tragically, we might not hit “perfect authenticity”, and you know what? We’re going to be just fine.

The sooner we realize this, that mistakes happen, that imperfection in the stories of our lives is exactly what makes those lives interesting, what makes those stories human, then the sooner we are free of fear and can take that risk. The risk that creates that sets up the next big plot twist.

So, in that spirit, I invite you to remember that we are all, already, saved from perfection. Wait! Wait. My colleague Megan Mathieson has inspired me to do better than that.

Please join me in the attitude of prayer.

By the power invested in me by the spirit of life and love, and bestowed upon me by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and in accordance with Natural Law and Divine Writ, I hereby absolve you my friends and neighbors, I absolve you of the sin of perfection. Ego te absolvo. There. Now you’re absolutely free to make those plot twists really interesting.

So, here we are. Authors, one and all. Acting ourselves into new ways of being, with our actions being the words written onto the pages of our world. Imperfectly. Haphazardly. With love. With regret. With hope. With passion. With intention, as we live, savor, and love with all of our heart.

Our life, the story, coming soon to a bookstore near you.

“A meaningful life being a novel that you’d recommend to a friend”? That idea is yours now. Write it down. Tell it to your friends. Live boldly. Or forget it entirely. Do with it what you will. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard it.

You’ve heard it, now.

Because the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.


2 Replies to “The Novel of Your Life”

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