Learning To Live A Better Story

Learning To Live A Better Story June 24, 2016

In 1949, American scholar, Joseph Campbell, published a book called  The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which argued that the narrative arch of every drama, myth, and religious ritual known to humankind could  be broken down into three basic acts: 1) an initial set up (the protagonist is called to adventure); 2) a confrontation (the protagonist faces trials and setbacks); and, 3) a resolution (the tension is resolved and the character learns something new about themselves). Campbell called this universal story telling pattern a monomyth, and it looks something like this:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow [hu]man.” – p.30

Sound familiar? It should, this is the basic plot of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Narnia, and every Marvel Superhero comic/movie our there. According to Campbell, the reason we see this basic story line used across time and culture is because it reflects the rhythms of human life — although Campbell focused mainly on the masculine journey.

In his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, author Donald Miller comes to a similar conclusion when is forced to look at his life through the lens of the monomyth. As he arranges his experiences into Campbell’s three act play, he discovers that all of life – not just the good bits- might be part of a larger story of transformation.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ” 

While I take issue with the Orientalism and general misogyny that pops up in much of Campbells work, and am increasingly disappointed by the direction of Miller’s Storyline project (e.g. “5 Simple Steps To A Meaningful Life!”), I am intrigued by their notion that life is not —as we might be tempted to believe—  a random assortment of unrelated events. But rather, that life is a journey of transformation. A journey where we have the ability to change and draw meaning out of the most senseless pain and loss.

It occurs to me, as it did to Miller, that living a better story takes intentionality; It takes time and practice to reflect on the course our lives are taking and make decisions that inch us closer to wholeness. And frankly, I could use a modicum of meaning in a world where Donald Trump is the GOP nominee for president and Orlando Florida is a crime scene.

So, I submit to you this 7 day practice for learning how to live a better story. Think of it as a a series of suggestions for self reflection. If something doesn’t speak to you, move on. If you need to stick with one prompt for a week, do that. If the focus on Christian spirituality feels limiting, rewrite it using an image of the Divine that works for you. If you end up making use of this guide, leave a comment describing what you thought of the experience.

Taken by Jane Finnegan at Fort Lauderdale BY The Sea, FL

Day #1

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people.”
– Matthew 4:19

In Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he argues that every story begins when a person is called out of their normal life and into a new adventure: Alice leaves her sister to follow the white rabbit; Neo takes the red pill; Moses notices the burning bush.
As we walk this journey of faith, it is important we stay alert to what God might be calling us into next.  This adventure may look like moving to a new city, starting a new job, or entering into a new relationship. Whatever it is, God is ready and waiting to use these new experiences to transform our hearts and lead us into deeper discipleship. The question is: will you say “yes”?

Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then ponder this question for the next two minutes: What new adventure is God calling me into now? Write down what occurs to you.

Day #2

Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea,
danger from false brothers and sisters.
– 2 Corinthians 11:25b -26
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul speaks at length about the many trials he has faced in his mission to spread the gospel across the ancient world. He doesn’t do this to scare the Corinthians, but to impress upon them the importance of his mission. In his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, Donald Miller writes, “Every creative person, and I think probably every other person, faces resistance when they are trying to create something good…The harder the resistance, the more important the task must be.” As you embark on your next adventure, remember that disappointment is inevitable — but do not let that deter you! Meaningful stories are wrought with challenges. Face them head on, knowing that God is cheering you on.
Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then ponder this question for the next two minutes:  What is stopping me, or has the potential to stop me, from living life to its fullest? Write down what occurs to you.
Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good,
in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.
 Genesis 50:20
After the hero says a hearty “yes!” to adventure they are often met with skepticism. Key people express criticism or try to block the hero from carrying out their intentions altogether. Many of us have experienced this same phenomenon in our lives: You start a new health regimen and your friend says, “You don’t really think you will lose the weight this time, do you?” You quit your job to pursue a new career dream and your parents ask, “Would you really be happier doing something else?” Or, worst of all, you risk being vulnerable and are met with condemnation and shame.
Former president Teddy Roosevelt once said
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
There a lots of reasons why the news that someone has decided to change their life elicits skepticism and judgment within us.  Sometimes its jealous getting the best of us. Other times it’s simply the fear of change. In these instances we must remember that neither the critic nor the criticism counts, rather, as Roosevelt says, …”the credit belongs to the one in the  arena.”
Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then ponder this question for the next two minutes:  Am I willing to “dare greatly” in spite of the possibility that I will face skepticism? Write down what occurs to you.
Day #4
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, 
will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 
— John 14:26
In Campbell’s narrative arch there are always mentors who come alongside the protagonist to offer support and guidance. When the road gets bumpy these figures help the hero find the strength to go on.
In John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Advocate” or “one who comes alongside.” The Greek word paraklētos, translated here as “advocate,” casts the Holy Spirit as a defense lawyer who argues tirelessly on our behalf. This image assures us that we have the help of a divine mentor who is prepared to defend and guide us through the darker nights of our journey.
Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then ponder this question for the next two minutes:  Who are my advocates and guides on this journey? Write down what occurs to you.
Day #5
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him,”Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
– John 14: 8-9
When the hero conquers their fear, often with the help of a mentor, there is a sudden change in the way they understand life. Oprah often refers to these instances as “Ah-ha moments;” dramatic revelations that challenge everything we thought we new and open us up to new ways of thinking and being. These moments are a sign that transformation is occurring and there is no going back to how things used to be.

In the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals his divine identity, forcing his listeners to reckon with the image of God before them. Here is God in the flesh: a man who eats with sinners and comforts the afflicted. This revelation sparked a movement that continues to this day, a movement that is birthing new revelations all the time.

Practice: Spend one minute in silence and then ponder these questions for the next two minutes:
What are the “Ah-ha moments” that have shaped by life? And how am I being changed right now? Write down what occurs to you.
Day #6
Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” 
– Luke 5:31-32
After the hero experiences their “Ah-ha movement,” they are left to grapple with the old habits and hang ups that once held them back. In real life, addictions must be acknowledged before sobriety can become a way of life. Death and loss of every kind must be grieved for healing to take root.
In the Christian tradition, this process of death and rebirth takes place in the framework of “atonement.” Atonement, or “at-one-ment,” refers to the reconciliation between God and creation that occurs via the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. The concept of atonement reminds us that God stands in solidarity with our brokenness and vulnerability, and yet, death is not end.
Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then ponder this question for the next two minutes:  What do I need to confess and let die of before I move forward with my life? Write down what occurs to you.
Day #7
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
 – Corinthians 13:12-13
The final act of the hero’s journey is called the “return.” At the end of the adventure the hero returns to everyday life with a deeper awareness of who they are and a vow to live differently. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he claims that in Jesus —how he lives, how we forgave his enemies, his death and resurrection- we glimpse a kingdom not yet fully realized.  He says someday we will experience this kingdom in its fullness, but until then, we are invited to deal in its currency: faith, hope, and love.
Practice:  Spend one minute in silence and then contemplate this question for two minutes: How can I integrate my “Ah-ha moments” into my everyday life? Write down what occurs to you.

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