The Power of Our Personal Stories
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
We all like stories. We all have a favorite movie or book, but most of us have never stopped to wonder why that movie or book may be our favorite. One of my favorite movies is the original Star Wars. In that story, the main character, Luke Skywalker, is a young man working on a farm doing menial labor when he finds himself pushed by circumstance into a new world of adventure, Jedi masters, and a confrontation with his own fears and personal shadows. I think the reason that the story is so enjoyable and engaging is that I can see myself in Luke. He also embodies characteristics that I would like to have as well. It is this intertwining of the characters of a story and our own human condition that add meaning to the story. We project ourselves emotionally into the story for entertainment and escape. However, I think sometimes we fail to recognize the value and power inherent to our own personal stories as we over identify with the stories designed to entertain us.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who had the misfortune of being Jewish in Nazi Germany. During World War II, Dr. Frankl found himself along with his family thrown into a concentration camp. Sadly, Dr. Frankl’s entire family did not survive the concentration camps, but he did. After being liberated, he went on to write a fantastic existential book called: Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he shares his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp. Ever the researcher, Dr. Frankl made a curious observation. He noted that it was not always the strongest and the healthiest who survived life within the confines of the concentration camps. He noticed that the people who seemed to do the best emotionally and ultimately had higher survival rates where those that could find some type of meaning in their circumstances. In a situation designed to strip the Jews of their identity and to erase their personal stories, those that still found value and held fast to their personal stories were the ones who survived.
As a young man in seminary, I recall studying the Bible in a quite in depth fashion as one is expected to do when engaging in pastoral studies. There was always an emphasis on finding ways to make the story speak to the lives of contemporary people. Curiously, there was a marked silence when it came to how a person’s life may have spoken to the narratives in the Bible. This always intrigued me because the Bible is largely a collection of narratives about specific people who were part of the development of the Abrahamic religions traditions. This idea that the narrative only speaks to a person’s life, but that the person’s life does not get to speak back to the narrative is the very thing preventing spiritual growth within churches everywhere. The two way dialogue and the freedom to ask the difficult questions of one’s faith are the two essential elements required for spiritual growth. Only in this can one recognize the power of their own personal story and the potential for it to shape, change, and impact the trajectory of our lives.
Our personal narratives and stories are vital to the meaning making processes in our lives. Bookended by birth and death, the pages that lie between that are currently being authored by our very choices and decisions paint a beautiful picture of creativity, struggle, pain, growth, and victory over adversity. Sometimes, as we flip back into the past pages and memories on the journey we see our growth and are inspired, and other times we look forward in hope, knowing that the book is still being authored. Our personal narrative reminds us who we are and gives us the strength and ability to maintain the one freedom that cannot be taken away in any circumstance. That freedom is to live according to one’s values and to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances. The story may evolve and change, but our capacity to choose the attitude we have related to the story never changes.-