In what story are you living? Most of us travel through life on this planet without ever being genuinely curious about this question or the implications of our answer to it. Oh, sure, we have our stock presuppositions that reflect some abstract notion that we occupy a world created by some being; or, alternatively, that there is no such thing or person who has made us and we are simply biding our time waiting for the universe to flatten and freeze, having emptied itself of any further energy gradients, all having gone dark with nothing to follow. We simply have to make up meaning as we walk to the edge of the existential cliff, preparing to jump into nothingness.
The funny thing is, it actually takes a great deal of courage—and awareness—to actually live as if either option is true. For indeed, each of us lives out our lives as if we are in some drama that feels like it was dreamed up by Tolstoy or painted on a canvass by van Gogh. And indeed, we humans are born storytellers. Literally. From the time our brains begin to develop, we eventually emerge as languaged people who are constantly trying to make sense of what we are experiencing. In fact it would be fair to say that we don’t know how not to tell stories. From big ones (there is a God or there isn’t); to medium-sized ones (my father will never love me; I hope this marriage can make it; I am so proud of my daughter); to very small ones (man, am I hungry; I love the Yankees; I hate the Yankees [okay, some will think there is nothing bigger than one of these last two storylines]).
The point is, rare is the time that our narrating self is mute. We are forever—if even not to any significant degree of awareness—reflecting on our lives, writing one more paragraph in the current chapter. Moreover, we never tell stories alone; our brains don’t allow for it. We may think that we do, but our minds are always moving in response to some relational input; we are always responding to something someone has said or done, or that we imagine that they think. The question is, to what degree are we aware of our narrating in this way, wiring our brains along the way—for good or for ill. This is why the question I first posed is so crucial. To believe that we have taken up occupancy in the middle of an epic saga changes every moment through which we pass—but only if we are paying attention to it. Which I would say I have a very hard time doing. And if I am not paying attention to it, shame—evil’s vector—will take every advantage. For shame, working at evil’s behest (and often with our practiced participation), has every intention of telling a different story than the one of a God who in Hopkins’ words has shot the entire universe through with grandeur.
No, rather, the story that shame wants to tell is one of scarcity, one of perfectionism, and one in which the threat of abandonment lies around every corner—albeit cloaked in the subtlest of sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. It need not make a grand entrance into your life via some publically humiliating scandal. It only needs to show up in the barely-noticed glance of derision from your mother; the tone of contempt from your spouse; your employer’s silent non-response to your request for direction on the project; your board of elders’ chair undermining your leadership—all for the sake of the congregation. Furthermore, shame has no need or interest in taking any credit for any of these disintegrating forces of relational nature. It is quite content to fade into the woodwork and allow us to merely repeat our neurally embedded habits.
So much of how we live—and tell—our story is accomplished quite automatically. Shame depends on this as well. For in remaining in our soporific state, much like Prince Rilian when under the Witch-Queen’s spell, evil has very little with which to concern itself, what with our willing collaboration in enabling its mission to disintegrate God’s good creation, one accusing interaction at a time. And remember, shame is not just about making us feel bad about ourselves. It intends to keep us from awakening to the as-yet-unimagined vocational callings the Holy Trinity has had in mind for us before the foundation of the world. Evil suspects that should we begin to pay attention to, let alone answer robustly the question I asked at the beginning, it will find itself in more trouble than it has bargained for.
Our minds, with all of their interpersonal neurobiological elegance are always telling stories, and always with someone else in mind. This week, into what story do you find yourself awakening, and who is helping you remain alert and attuned to it?
Just so you know, Jesus can’t wait to hear you tell the tale.