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The Story Of Your Life

Emily Esfahani Smith has a book coming out next month: The Power of Meaning: Crafting A Life That Matters.  [1] 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.  [2] 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 [3] 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 [4]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 [5], 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 [6] 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.

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29 Comments To "The Story Of Your Life"

#1 Comment By Josh K On December 9, 2016 @ 10:31 am

There is a mystical concept in Judaism that when you completely repent for a sin (hard to do), the previous instances of that sin are counted as good deeds, not just erased (lesser levels of repentance erase them, easier to do).

The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that when you reach the level of truly overcoming a negative trait, the previous sins become an integral part of a story about overcoming adversity to come closer to God. The acts themselves don’t change, but their place in the narrative does, transforming their nature.

[NFR: In Dante’s Paradiso, the blessed laugh at the sins they committed in their earthly life, because they seem them as part of the story that led them to eternal fellowship with God. — RD]

#2 Comment By Charles On December 9, 2016 @ 10:34 am

The fact that the narrative emphasis spoke to you should not be surprising, given your fondness (which I share) for Alasdair MacIntyre. “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'” (After Virtue)

Good to see some positive psychology here. To get a good look at how narrative psychology can reshape the way that we see ourselves, I recommend Dan McAdams’ 1997 book “The Stories We Live By.”

#3 Comment By Liam On December 9, 2016 @ 10:36 am

Well, as the person who bleats here on what might be called existential concerns but is more about dryness and dark nights, as it were, sometimes we’re called to have a much softer bite* on belonging, meaning, purpose et cet. than our egos would prefer. When we need narrative more than God, that’s a sign of trouble ahead.

* In the sense of soft bite vs hard bite as a metaphor from canine training.

#4 Comment By Jill A. On December 9, 2016 @ 10:59 am

I measure this type of book and advice against the death of my daughter. “Nothing was ever the same again.” Does her death make my life a contamination story?

“The patient comes to realize, among other things, that he is in control of his life….” Control? What control? So much of life is well beyond my control. At time, I’m hardly able to control myself and my thoughts, my actions and reactions.

Maybe I need to read the book and I am interpreting your thoughts incorrectly. It has been almost 26 years since my daughter died, and I’ve had a good life. Full of love and laughter, loss and pain.

“Good came out of it…” Well, no, good did not come out of it. I learned things, I hope I’ve put my knowledge to good use on occasion, but no, nothing good comes out of the death of a child.

#5 Comment By Liam On December 9, 2016 @ 11:10 am

[NFR: In Dante’s Paradiso, the blessed laugh at the sins they committed in their earthly life, because they seem them as part of the story that led them to eternal fellowship with God. — RD]

That’s why Felix Culpa is a great dog’s name.

#6 Comment By Viriato On December 9, 2016 @ 11:27 am

Excellent post. I think your blog has helped me begin to make sense of my own life.

I did not know you were in a car accident! I wish you a speedy recovery.

#7 Comment By Christopher On December 9, 2016 @ 11:42 am

Very good post. On a personal note, Viktor Frankl’s (Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor) book “Man’s Search for Meaning” served the same role in my life As Dante did for Rod and as Smith’s book could very well do for others. This was when I was young (late teens) and decidedly anti-Christian…

#8 Comment By Christopher On December 9, 2016 @ 11:49 am

Also, somewhat along these lines Rod recommend a movie a few days ago (i.e. “Arrival”) that is based on a short story by Ted Chiang titled “Story of Your Life”. I have not seen the movie, but the short story is very very powerful and for the non-Christian readers of this blog could be an entry way into what a life lived as a redemtive story looks like…

#9 Comment By Billy O’Reilly On December 9, 2016 @ 11:50 am

Rod, Have you read Andrew Scott’s Shifting Stories? I think you’d like it.

#10 Comment By Billy O’Reilly On December 9, 2016 @ 11:54 am

I meant to include the link on Amazon, which is: [7]

#11 Comment By Marcus On December 9, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

This is all well and good, I say, even though I have not read her book, so this is based just on what you posted here. Without knowing any further details of her opinion in this matter, I have to take a qualified exception to her notion of belonging, of finding a tribe. It seems to me that one of the most difficult nettles to grasp in Christianity is to transcend the notion of settling safely into “tribes” and sallying forth to face and engage the whole world with one’s faith.

#12 Comment By Jan Han On December 9, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

“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.”

A pithy summation of a profound truth. I have been thinking about the brilliant irony of Christianity, the degree to which it places blasphemy at the center of holiness, defies our binary conceptions of the two.

The most sacred symbol in the Christian faith, the cross, was anathema to the Jews. Meanwhile, for the Romans, it was a symbol of the power of their state’s deity, Caesar, a rebuke to blasphemy against that god. Yet that shame is the site of glory. The path to the heart of God runs through the very embodiment of pollution.

I feel this is a necessary supplement to discussion of the Benedict Option, and indeed to the paranoia about America as a post-Christian nation. Lest we become fixated with moral purity, let us remember that God has revealed Himself, and continues to reveal Himself, in the most contaminated of places.

[NFR: What “paranoia about America as a post-Christian nation”? It’s a simple descriptive fact. — RD]

#13 Comment By JonF On December 9, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

Re: In Dante’s Paradiso, the blessed laugh at the sins they committed in their earthly life, because they seem them as part of the story that led them to eternal fellowship with God. —

This reminds me of Tolkien’s idea of “eucatastrophe”– a disaster that leads to a good ending, indeed a better ending than would have happened without it. Thus the Crucifixion brings the Resurrection– and more broadly, Original Sin leads to the incarnation opening the way to true theosis which would never have been available to an unfallen humanity.

#14 Comment By KD On December 9, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

Very cool piece Rod!

#15 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On December 9, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

great post, Rod!

#16 Comment By Steve S On December 9, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

Interesting comment from Josk K. about the mystical tradition of repentance in Judaism. It reminded me of the wonderful scene in the film The Mission when DeNiro’s character, Rodrigo (a fraticidal slave trader and mercenary) finally experiences the fullness of the grace of forgiveness. He laughs joyfully. Earlier in the film he aggressively confronted anyone and everyone who he thought was laughing at him.

I always thought this was simply a sign of his demonic pride: “The devil, that proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” But I think laughing at one’s past sins shows a true power and freedom from them that “erasing them” cannot provide. If one is still haunted by (and perhaps tempted by) one’s past sins, then God can mercifully erase them. But the soul who has true freedom in Christ can laugh at the devil and the devil’s work. I know Dante called his story the “comedy” because it has a “happy ending”, but maybe we should also think of it as funny. The joke is on the devil, and God wants us to laugh.

#17 Comment By Sandy On December 9, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

“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.”

And that is the gospel right there. Hallelujah! That’s what gives me hope as I allow God to transform my story from a contamination story into a redemption story.

Thanks Rod for allowing people into your life through your books to show that even when a redemption story (like your going back home) becomes a contamination story God can always still redeem it again. That painful journey for you has helped me through a similar life circumstances. In that way you truly are an exemplar of endurance and faith for many people.

Also I agree with Charles that this post reminded me of those sections of MacIntyre where he discusses narrative. Not only can one not answer “What am I to do” if you don’t know what story you find yourself in, but actions themselves begin to loose intelligibility which leads to depression (as I can attest). The author is right (with research to back her up) that mental health seriously improves when you change the way you think about your story. My heart goes out to those without God to lead them down that path of healing.

#18 Comment By Tom On December 9, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

My own experience of turning a story of contamination into one of redemption involved my family history, and included a couple of years of therapy which allowed me to re-cast my life story in a little book I wrote just for my family. If there is one modern thinker who inspired me in the process, it was the British psychiatrist Adam Phillips. In an interview published in the Paris Review, one remark especially stuck with me:

PHILLIPS
Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself. And these two things—
INTERVIEWER
The need not to know yourself?
PHILLIPS
The need not to know yourself. Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. . . .”

This helped me because I knew myself far too well; had a negative narrative down pat, useful on all occasions when I needed to explain myself. My new story is not an illusion; it is the same events, seen in a different light. As you are fond of saying, read the rest:

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#19 Comment By Jan Han On December 9, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

Rod,

That America is a post-Christian nation is indeed a fact; what we do with that is a matter of interpretation. For some it elicits paranoia, for some resignation, for some, improbably, excitement. I didn’t intend it as a straw-man characterization of the Benedict Option, merely as one emotional response that may undergird some Christians’ recourse to Ben Op.

My point is, whatever our instincts may tell us that the statistics “mean,” God’s perspective may yet surprise us. Isaiah 55:8-9 and all that.

#20 Comment By cecelia On December 9, 2016 @ 10:45 pm

I have a friend who was in Sudan during the early years of their conflict and famine. She tells a story of being in a refugee camp one evening with recent arrivals and the medical personnel from Trocare – the Irish Caritas agency. The refugees who had just arrived were telling the story of their terrible escape and suggested the Irish people as Westerners could understand nothing of their suffering. As if Western history is exempt from suffering. So one of the Irish doctors began speaking of the famine years – the Great Hunger as it is called Ireland. My friend says that as the doctor spoke – all of the people there – volunteers and refugees began moving closer to each other and holding each other. So that by the end of the storytelling they were no longer two separate groups – but one group united in an understanding of their common suffering and humanity.

I often think if we listened to each others stories there would be much less of the divisiveness we now see in our country.

#21 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 10, 2016 @ 2:58 am

I think the problem I have with this is I really don’t get the contamination thing. I’ve had a few reverses in my life, some of them rather dramatic, but I cannot think of how any of them in any way contaminated me.

#22 Comment By Michelle Van Loon On December 10, 2016 @ 9:06 am

Excellent article. Thank you! This is the thesis of a book I wrote on the subject of regret: God can redeem our deepest regrets, and bring his shalom to our divided hearts.

You said, “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 this is not true, then we believers deserve to be branded as the world’s greatest fools.

But IS is truer than the tragedy we experience in our lives and see around us in this broken world. The resurrection points us to the end of the story, and an Author who does, as Tolkien cannily put, make everything sad become untrue.

#23 Comment By JonF On December 10, 2016 @ 9:53 am

Charles, I would dread meeting the force that could contaminate you. Someday, far off still let us hope, even the Grim Reaper will need a good stiff drink after dealing with you.

#24 Comment By Dick Schenk On December 10, 2016 @ 10:29 am

I agree everyone has a story and most really don’t make sense until years later. Most events or chapters in one’s life are not stories at all. They lack the context of one’s life. The story below, I wrote a while back so that my family could read it after I died. I want them to see the ups and downs of my life and to understand the necessity for continued prayer and moving forward one step at a time.

Rod this may be too long and I pretty much just pasted this from a word doc. Space between paragraphs is not there. I don’t now how you have time to do all you do. So I don’t want you to waste unnecessary time editing this. Best wishes.

A Bit of My Story
Everyone has expectations for his life. Most individuals, I guess, are quite optimistic. I was the opposite. I remember graduating from St. Louis University in 1965. Amidst the laughing and good wishes, as I joined my friends walking around campus and going to parties, I was really “faking it” as I had for quite a few years.
I had two problems. Since, at least 8th grade, I had been bothered by a scrupulous conscience. What that means is that you are certainly religious but rather than focusing on God’s goodness and evangelizing by example, you think you are continually committing sin. One loses all ability to be objective. Because Confession was so accessible in both high school and college, I was availing myself of the sacrament often each week. Even though I attended daily Mass, I seldom really prayed, I just continually ‘examined my conscience” and worried I was going to hell.
My second problem developed during my sophomore year of college, I became extremely anxious. I grew very self conscious, developed a nervous stomach and an occasional lip quiver. More often than not, I was just totally uneasy. Negative thoughts dominated. These symptoms could suddenly disappear for a day, maybe even a month. But they would return with a vengeance. In those days there were few tranquilizers, no one talked of depression or panic attacks. A trip to a psychiatrist would be a resume killer.
I worked hard to hide my problems from family, friends and others. I was successful. But inside I was a mess.
I remember in senior year of college, two of my good friends married. They teased me about how I was next – even though I had no girl friend at the time. I just smiled but I was thinking how far off base they were. I was not in control of my own life. How could I be a partner with another? I saw myself as a life-long bachelor, living in a very modest apartment, supporting myself as an accountant for a small company. That game plan could be called simply a survival scenario.
Years earlier I had thought I would definitely marry. Sure, I was shy; but I wasn’t bad looking. I developed a habit in high school of sending a monthly donation to Divine Word Missionaries. On the prayer request form, I always asked for one thing: to someday meet and marry a strong Catholic woman. My prayers were falling on deaf ears.
Funny, how things had turned so gloomy. As I prepared to graduate from college, my faith was still strong but it certainly didn’t seem to be of much practical help. I thought God was sending me far more crosses than blessings.
Well, this isn’t a book; it is more of a reflection. So, I am going to fast forward about forty years. I’m sitting on the banks of the Mississippi at a Jesuit retreat called The White House. I remember when I was here as a high school senior (scrupulosity in full bloom). My adult life was ahead of me then and now it is certainly mostly behind. It’s time to consider a most improbable life. Things become clearer in the rear view mirror. God’s ways certainly become better understood.
Seven years after college, I did marry. My scrupulosity had subsided, and my anxiety was somewhat manageable, when I was introduced to Carol Perkins – a girl far more attractive and personable than any I had ever dated. I was infatuated; and for the next year, she pretty much dominated my thoughts as I pursued a graduate degree on the GI Bill (I had just finished a 3 yr Army enlistment). Then as I turned 26 and she 25, we both knew that it was time to make a permanent commitment.
But that wasn’t so easy for me, infatuation had eased enough for me to be somewhat analytical about this decision. I equivocated, proposed and then rescinded. I knew the commitment I was making. Suddenly doubt piled upon doubt. I prayed and somehow, in spite of all the fuzzy thinking, found the courage to propose again.
We were married 8 months later. I often wonder what my life would be like if we had not married. Here was the girl I had prayed for: a conservative Catholic from a Catholic family, same values, great looks, wonderful personality. Those monthly prayers and donations to Divine Word Missionaries payed the dividend of a lifetime.
My anxieties unfortunately returned. Panic attacks, fitful sleep, even hyperventilation. I kept it to myself. No medication, no professional help. I prayed the rosary on my drives to work, I often attended weekday Mass. While happy to be married, I was apprehensive about growing responsibilities and my ability to deal with the tensions of trying to advance professionally and be a good husband and father. Yes, we were parents after only ten months of marriage and that was just the beginning.
Often when I went to work, I wondered if this would be the day I would faint from a panic attack and my problems be exposed. But it didn’t happen. Just when things appeared darkest they got better – only to return unexpectedly.
As I think back, I can only say, Carol and I put our faith in God. We never, ever thought we would have five children. But we allowed God to intervene. I remember being totally overwhelmed when our third child (and first boy) was born. I couldn’t enjoy the moment. Heart pounding, I fought a losing battle to fight off negative thoughts. With Carol and our young children, I role played the happy husband and father.
A few years later, I heard a talk on personal financial planning. Such a tool was fundamental to raising a family and providing for retirement. I sat down with the spreadsheets. It didn’t take long to realize this was a futile task. I looked at my income and the financial requirements to sent five children through Catholic schools and onto college. Then I thought about 401Ks and the necessary funds to be set aside for retirement. There simply wasn’t enough money. The strategy would have to be to squeeze every penny, to work hard and to trust in God.
“Trust in God” is easy to say. I said it but it didn’t stop me from worrying. I was Moses, tapping the staff twice. I was Peter not believing my ability to walk on water and starting to sink. We prayed, we worked, we doubted, we worried.
Carol started a school uniform business in1976. It grew very slowly until the mid 1980s when mismanagement by the large market leaders gave her an opportunity. When she sold the business in 1996, it was the leading supplier in the St. Louis area. What a job she did!!
As for me, twice I dodged a layoff bullet. I advanced, overcame my inability to speak in public and shared the excitement of being a part of a technology company. Amazingly we became listed on the New York Stock Exchange and I was the corporate VP in charge of marketing. Who would have thought?
Carol’s and my success were improbable, almost inexplicable. For so many reasons, the odds were just too great against these things happening at the same time the children were advancing thru school accompanied by a myriad of their own needs. Two decades after abandoning that first financial planning activity, I was able to complete a new, viable one for our family.
Today, I am still a bit scrupulous and occasionally somewhat nervous. But in general, all of that has subsided. Our five children are married, each to a Catholic spouse. They attend weekly Mass. We have twelve grandchildren to date. We are retired. Next year, I will celebrate my seventy fourth birthday.
As in Psalm 145, we give God the praise and glory for all He has given us. We thank Him too for the problems and difficulties; and, in fact, expect that more will come. After all, just as we are “Easter people”, we know we must carry our cross. We know we will experience our share in His Passion. As I look back, I know that the physical and mental crosses I experienced brought me and kept me close to God. I pray new trials will do the same.
Now I look forward to the future with faith that will, I pray, always overcome any doubts. My resolve is to be in community with those in need, to increase my ability to share and care with family, friends, fellow parishioners and strangers. I know this is now my role in life.
“To whom much has been given, much is expected.”

#25 Comment By Mark On December 10, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

Rod, I am Orthodox Christian and attend a Greek Church. I was raised Protestant and personal testimonies were always an important witness and draw for people to decide to follow Christ. And even with my priest, his best sermons and the demons that receive the most attention are when they are his personal redemption stories.

My youngest daughter in college is struggling with her faith and I came across the most touching contamination to redemption story on YouTube that I have ever seen. This is St. Mary of Egypt stuff! It is called “I Am Second – Annie Lobert”. My whole family was moved to tears! Scott Hamilton’s story was also particularly touching. I provide the link to Annie’s story below. I think you too will be moved!

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#26 Comment By Nathan On December 10, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

I would like to make two points. The first is scientists have done experiments and have proven that in some situations, people can construe extremely detailed stories out of random nonsense the scientists feed them. This does not mean that there is no meaning in the universe, but rather that we often get it wrong, whether by sin, ignorance, or human stupidity. We human often write a narrative to fit our experiences which is completely wrong.

The second point is that as someone who writes fiction (badly) in my spare time, it is so hard to makes stories with the complexity of real life. It may be very easy for God to draw straight with crooked lines, but it is much harder for simpletons like myself.

I mentioned Brideshead Revisited in a comment the other day, and I will mention it again here because Evelyn Waugh did the best job I know describing how God can use people’s sins, even serious ones, to draw people to Him. An adulterous affair serves as the catalyst to both members turning to God.

There is an aspect of the good in every sin, and often this can be used by God to turn the very things which contaminated a person’s life into redemption. There’s a quote misattributed to C.S. Lewis “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”

Anyway, Waugh mentions that the story is all about God’s grace working upon one family, in every aspect of their lives. Rarely do they realize this, though. God Himself is maybe even the protagonist of the story.

In the book Waugh quotes Chesterton and this quote serves as the theme of the entire story.

“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

#27 Comment By Elli On December 10, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

Some times we try to make sense and tell a story about our lives before we can really know what, if anything, it means. We force sense where there is no sense, trying to retrieve where there is loss.

Sometimes the best you can hope for is grace.

#28 Comment By B. Taylor On December 10, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

I’ve been a Christian since I was four, a mass murder survivor, permanently disabled, since I was seven. I’m now 64. Everything I hoped for in life has been denied me, yet I see mine as a redemption story, not one of contamination. I’m blessed to attend a church which, with an exception or two ( some people really are too privileged ) doesn’t slough off my suffering and has been a benefaction to me in so many ways. I’ve often discussed with my pastor that Psalm 88, particularly verse 15, is eerie in its resonance with my personal story. Many Christians draw sustenance of a strong kind from such verses as Romans 8:28, which is one of the maximal “redemption” verses in scripture. But the Psalms of lament, such as #88, are more comforting to me much of the time. I tell my pastors that much of the time I’m emotionally burned out in my passion for God, yet God will not relinquish his hold on me. Thank God indeed for my pastors, who are strong in the faith and who understand that I am indeed being held. Once, I was childishly complaining to two of my fellow parishioners, “But I wanted my life to be – ” when they interrupted in unison, “But it’s not YOUR life.” These two men are richly blessed, having health, giftedness, family, etc., but thank God for them, they weren’t going to shirk their duty to remind me of truth. And they, no less than my pastors, understand my unhappiness and do not see it as rebellion. They’re correct, by God’s grace.

#29 Comment By Jen On December 12, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

The NYT had an interesting story several years ago about research into this issue. This is what I found interesting:

“In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.”

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