Emily Esfahani Smith has a book coming out next month: The Power of Meaning: Crafting A Life That Matters. Smith — a wonderful, engaging writer — writes about the ways that all of us search for meaning. She says meaning rests on four pillars:
Belonging: We all need to find our tribe and forge relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued—to know we matter to others.
Purpose: We all need a far-reaching goal that motivates us, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and drives us to make a contribution to the world.
Storytelling: We are all storytellers, taking our disparate experiences and assembling them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.
Transcendence: During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel we have risen above the everyday world and are connected to something vast and meaningful.
I’m particularly interested in the storytelling part. One of the most surprising findings in my Benedict Option research was social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s belief that storytelling is essential to a tribe or other social grouping preserving itself, and its cultural memory. See my earlier post for much more detail on that point. Connerton contends that if a people’s “sacred story” is to be retained in its collective memory, then it must be told ritually, in particular ways. I adapted that insight to my Benedict Option chapter on Worship.
In the Storytelling chapter of her book, Esfahani Smith says that psychologists observe people telling two particular kinds of stories to make sense of their suffering: redemption stories, and contamination stories.
The moral of every redemption story is, “Despite all these terrible things happening, good came out of it, and I was able to move on, strengthened.” The moral of every contamination story is, “And after all that, nothing was ever the same again.”
In her book, Esfahani Smith, who holds a Master’s Degree in applied positive psychology from Penn, quotes a psychologist saying that
mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life. Either the story is incoherent, or inadequate, or it’s a “life story gone awry.” The psychotherapist’s job is to work with patients to rewrite their stories in a more positive way. Through editing and interpreting his story with his therapist, the patient comes to realize, among other things, that he is in control of his life and that some meaning can be gleaned from whatever hardship he has endured. As a result, his mental health improves. A review of the scientific literature finds that this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy.
That really struck me, because I lived through it myself, and documented all of it in How Dante Can Save Your Life. I previously thought that the redemption story I had to tell was about how my sister’s death, and the way she faced it, healed something in me and made it possible for me to return to our hometown. Ruthie kept saying as she battled cancer not to despair, because if she didn’t make it, God would bring good out of it somehow. Well, for me, that was a good, a gift for which I gave her thanks, and tried to repay in some way by writing a book-length tribute to her. Every time somebody writes to say how that book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, changed their life in a good way, I send that on to my mom (and to my dad, while he was alive), as testimony to the truth of Ruthie’s confidence that good would come out of her suffering.
But what I thought was a redemption story turned into a contamination story after I finished that book. It turned out that coming home, I had to face down some fierce dragons that I had not realized were there. As longtime readers know, I fell into a deep depression, one that also made me physically ill. What brought me out of it was my therapist, my priest, and reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.
It’s a story familiar to you longtime readers, and I won’t bore you with it again. I’m thinking about it, though, as a personal example of the truth Esfahani Smith writes about here. The same set of facts can produce a redemption story or a contamination story. The goal my therapist and my priest set for me (though not formally) was to step back from the story and try to see what God was trying to show me through the unfolding of the plot.
For me, the spell was so powerful that it took entering fully into another man’s story, Dante Alighieri’s, to break its hold on me. The Divine Comedy is a work of fiction that came out of its author’s own suffering. It is a redemption story without peer. What the poet does is show how his ultimate redemption required him to sojourn through Hell (Inferno) for a time — Hell being a place where he had to confront without fear or dissembling his own sins and failings, so that he could repent of them. Purgatorio, part two of the book, showed how he, with God’s help and the help of others, rebuilt his life and gained moral and spiritual strength. Paradiso, part three, shows the completion of his journey, which is to say, Dante’s story.
And, like a Hero, he is charged with going back and telling the world what he saw on his journey.
I am certain that the only way I could have turned my contamination story into a redemption story is through Dante’s story, through which the poet did the same thing for himself. In my case, the contamination story did, in fact, become a redemption story, and it ended with me spending the last eight days of my father’s life at his bedside, caring for him as he died. He died with me holding his hand. Not everything had been put right between us, but on a deeper level, everything had been put right within me, and between God and me. And I knew that none of this redemption would have happened without the events that turned my story into a contamination story.
Christianity teaches us that all contamination stories can become redemption stories if we want them to be. The worst contamination story of all — God himself in the form of a man, innocent but condemned to torture and death — became the best possible redemption story, with Jesus Christ’s resurrection making it possible for all of us to overcome death.
In Dante’s Inferno, every one of the damned is stuck on themselves and their own suffering. They got there because in life, they insisted on placing themselves and their own desires first. They themselves were the point of their own story, which ended with eternal contamination. Those who sought the will of God, and who were willing to accept suffering and unite it in some way to the story of Jesus Christ, found redemption in eternity. There’s a marvelous scene in Dante’s Purgatorio when the pilgrim gets to the terrace upon which the Gluttons are purged of their tendency to sin. He is shocked to see his old friend Forese Donati there in a crowd of emaciated souls singing hymns of praise to God. How can you be so obviously miserable, but so filled with joy? Dante asks Forese, who answers:
“All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.
“The fragrance coming from the fruit
and from the water sprinkled on green boughs
kindles our craving to eat and drink,
“and not once only, circling in this space,
is our pain renewed.
I speak of pain but should say solace,
“for the same desire leads us to the trees
that led Christ to utter Eli with such bliss
when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.”
And there it is. Had these souls been suffering from starvation in Hell, their story would have been a contamination story. But because they belonged to Christ, they experienced their story as a temporary condition designed to purge them of selfishness and unite them even closer to God. The point the poet Dante wants to make is the same as Emily Esfahani Smith speaks of: that we have free will, and with it, the ability to interpret the facts of our own lives and put them into a coherent narrative. Dante called his great 14,000-line poem a “comedy” not because it’s humorous, but because unlike a tragedy, it has a happy ending. Everything that went wrong in Dante’s life to deliver him to the dark wood, where there was no light or meaning, and where he was confused and trapped, served as the means through which God brought him to repentance, to ultimately to salvation. A key line in the entire poem is the testimony of Piccarda Donati, in heaven, who tells the pilgrim Dante not to try to make too much sense of how and why God does things, but only to trust in His love and the hope that gives us, because “In His will is our peace.”
It’s hard. It can be very, very hard. Most every day I have something come up that challenges me. Our story is not finished until we die. The temptation to surrender redemption and fall into the self-pity of a contamination story is always present. The goal of Christianity is not simply to bring us to eternal salvation, but to begin to heal us in this life. For most of us, at some level, this means learning how to tell our own stories according to the master plot, which is a comedy, which is redeeming, which is a happy ending, despite all appearances.
If you can grasp why the martyr’s crown was so prized by the early Church, you will have grasped the essence of what it means for a true Christian to tell the story of her life. And, as the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy said, the only true tragedy in life is not to have been a saint — that is, in a sense, the opportunity to use the authorship God gives each of us over our own lives, and to have written a redemptive ending.
I’m going to be away from the keys most of today. Headed right now to get a rental car to replace the one damaged in the car accident, and then going to see the sports medicine doc about the pain in my neck and back. If you have any stories to share, especially about how you turned a contamination story into a redemption story, please do. Make yourself anonymous if you feel the need to. I’ll approve comments as I can.
The book is The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. She offers clear, compelling, and above all useful advice for how to live with meaning and purpose. One more thing from Dante: at the very end of the Commedia, when he gets to the end of time, before the throne of God, he sees all the things that ever happened gathered together into a big book, a story ordered
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe
UPDATE: I should make clear that Emily Esfahani Smith’s book is a book about applied psychology, not religion — though religious people like me will approach it from that way.