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Stories don’t just embellish our lives; they make and even dictate our lives. This might be the most important reminder of this month. Indeed, who of us hasn’t felt controlled by a story? Stuck in a story? Hopeless about the way our story will end up? Simply put, our stories often write us as much as we write them.
For instance, the author Rachel Naomi Remen talks about how her family clings to the childhood story of her being “the clumsy one of the family.” Ask all her friends and colleagues and they will describe her as graceful. They’ve never once seen her trip over her own feet or drop something , ever. And yet, somehow, when she goes to her parents’ house or back to a family reunion, she spills coffee on at least one outfit, stubs more than one toe and trips on more steps than she can count. By trying so hard to escape her family’s narrative about clumsy little Naomi, she inevitably slips into it anew. Talk about the power of story!
Or think about our current struggles with economic or racial justice. The unconscionable income gap is often described as “natural” or “the result of complex global dynamics over which we have little control.” Similarly, the story of race in our country is too often told with an “entrenched” story arc or celebrated as “having come so far.” The aim of all these cultural narratives is the same: to undermine action, and worse, to undermine our belief that action can change things.
So let’s tell a new story! This is the message of our faith. We have a choice, it tells us. Our stories are not predetermined! Remember that old theological debate for which our UU forebearers gave their lives? All around them people were saying that God had predestined not just the big story of humanity, but our individual stories too. Supposedly, some of us were slotted for heaven and others for hell. And God had written the list in ink. Nothing any of us could do about it.
“Well,” said our spiritual ancestors, “that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?!” Forget this extreme fate-driven story, they said. Freedom has a much bigger role than we’re giving it credit for. God is not so much the author of the story as she is the magical muse that needles and nags us to put our own stamp on the narratives before us. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” Our spiritual ancestors might have offered a friendly amendment and said, “All the world is an improv show! Our job is to hop on the stage and make up the script as we go!”
So fate and freedom. This month is much more about the tension between these two than one might have thought, leaving us with questions like: Are you an actor conforming to the scripts handed to you? Or have you found your own way of becoming the director or screenwriter of your life? How are you struggling right now to regain control of your storyline? How are you and your friends working to regain control of the storyline of our community? Our country?
Or maybe taking back control is not your task at this time. Maybe your spiritual work is instead about finding a new storyline. Maybe retirement, divorce, illness or the empty-nest has closed the book on one story and is inviting you to leap into a whole new narrative. Does that leave you excited about what’s to come? Scared? A bit of both?
Whatever it is. Wherever you are at. Don’t give the storyline away. That’s the message of our faith. And hopefully the gift of this month.