The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
October 5, 2013
The stories we tell ourselves
Whenever I visit Portland, Ore., I make a pilgrimage to the Powell’s City of Books motherstore on West Burnside Street. It’s a behemoth, carrying both new and used books on four floors, 68,000 sq. ft. of books. Check out their store map.
The last time I was there, I wandered around in the fiction section and found myself in front of Madeline L’Engle. L’Engle, who died in 2007 at age 88, is best known for the youth science fiction/fantasy book A Wrinkle in Time but wrote many other books of fiction, essay and memoir. Like many people my age, I read Wrinkle as a youth. As a mother, I read Wrinkle and the other books in the "Kairos" series to my son at bedtime. I liked the challenging spiritual themes running through L’Engle’s work (she was a devout Episcopalian).It had been a while since I’d read her work, but because I’d always admired how she thought spiritually, I decided to try some of her essays. So this was my chance to pick up something new.
Like any good bookstore, Powell’s shelves sport mini reviews and recommendations. In the L’Engle section, there were raves about her “Crosswicks Journals,” a series of four books that she had compiled from her personal journals over several decades. I picked up the first two. A Circle of Quiet, the first volume, is generally considered the best of the lot, and focuses on her nuclear family’s life at Crosswicks, their Connecticut “summer home,” interspersed with her thoughts on writing, politics, and religion. It was an interesting read, revealing some of L’Engle’s somewhat surprisingly strident personality.
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother contains reminisces about her childhood and ancestors set within her family’s drama of caring for her 90-year-old mother, who L’Engle says has arteriosclerosis, but today we would recognize has end-stage Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, I did not get very far into Great-Grandmother before uncomfortable thoughts like “whitewash” and “selective memory” started to come to mind. The sections on L’Engle’s strange childhood, where her parents went out on the town nightly, leaving her alone with a tray of dinner, were disturbing, no matter how normal she made it seem. Her rationale for their sending her off to a series of boarding schools (which she hated) starting at a very early age also didn’t sit well. The mysterious “lung condition” she said her father suffered from as a result of getting gassed in WWI, which necessitated the family constantly packing up and travelling all over Europe “for better air” was fishy. Was it just me being overly critical, or was something strange going on in this book?
I didn’t know much about L’Engle personally, but the lapses disturbed me enough that I looked for biographical information. The Wikipedia entry revealed a complex person and pointed me to a 2004 article in The New Yorker, written just a few years before her death.
These profiles revealed a L’Engle who used pretty much all her writing—her fiction as well as her essays—as a way to make sense of her life, and tell herself (and her readers) stories about her and her family that would put them in the light she wanted them to have.
By all accounts her parents weren't all that thrilled with her existence once she was born (even though they'd tried to have a child for a long time) and wanted as little to do with her as possible; hence the dinners alone, the boarding schools, and months- and sometimes years-long “visits” to various relatives. Her father likely was an alcoholic, not a heroic gassed WWI vet with lung problems, and died fairly young.
In her adult life, L’Engle often based her fictional books and essays on her own marriage and children, including A Wrinkle in Time. She controlled the narratives and assigned temperments and actions to thinly-disguised characters based on her loved ones. Her marriage to Hugh Franklin was not the loving, deep relationship she portrayed. Her son Bion, on whom the Wrinkle character Charles Wallace was based, deeply resented the association, even as a child, and died in his late 40s, most likely of alcoholism. Both her natural-born and adopted daughters dispute the portrayals of them and their family relationships in the Crosswicks Journals series and the "Chronos" series of novels.
Once I learned these things about L’Engle, I found it difficult to finish Great-Grandmother and decided not to read the remaining two Crosswicks Journals, The Irrational Season and Two-Part Invention. Yet I felt compassion for her.
L’Engle appeared to be a sensitive person who was damaged as a girl by her parents’ inattention, and found ways to cope with her life through making it into a different story in her writing. As an adult, she kept the same pattern of manipulating her life to make it come out better and have people be who she wanted them to be, not who they were. Her writing was her means of self defense and explanation. It brought a lot of good to her readers. However she seemed unable to stop insisting on being her own self-narrator, and those closest to her found themselves reinterpreted publicly for most of their lives.
I had been thinking about L’Engle for some weeks when I ran across an episode of This American Life called “How I Got into College.”
The main focus of the episode is Emir Kamenica, who in the early 1990s came to the U.S. in his early teens as a refugee from Bosnia. Today Kamenica is an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Kamenica gives a first-person account of his family during the disastrous war, how he came to America, suffered through a bad and dangerous high school experience, and then by chance and the grace of a teacher instead is able to attend a prestigious private high school, and from there to go Harvard and get his Ph.D. He wants to find the teacher who helped him and thank her.
The radio show tracks down the teacher, and the two meet. But the teacher remembers events very differently. The original high school was not all that bad. Kamenica was a brilliant student, who was not “lucky” at all in getting moved, and then into Harvard.
The interesting thing is that Kamenica is so sure of his version of his life story—which he has told many times to many people—that he does not believe what the teacher says. In his mind—and remember he’s a very intelligent Ph.D.—her story simply cannot be true. Even when a number of statistics and records are shown to him, it does not budge him.
The story he has told himself is how he has made sense of his life. It defines him. If it turns out not to be true, many things unravel. What does he have left? How does he think of himself now? What becomes his new story? It's all too much for him, at least right away.
We all have a story we tell ourselves about our lives. It helps us to make sense of how we were raised, how we got where we are, and who we are.
But often our stories are distorted. Maybe like L’Engle, we whitewash things so we can live with them. Or like Kamenica our story downplays our own contributions and depicts us as receivers of chance good fortune.Some people’s stories portray them as the perpetual victim, to whom bad things always keep happening through no fault of their own. Others set themselves up as authorities who always have the right answers and the best ideas that other people must follow.
A lot of people make and keep themselves miserable and cause damage to others because the stories they tell themselves about who they are, are not true.
There is much to be gained by occasionally examining our stories, searching them for the truth, and revising them when it’s needed. But it takes a lot of courage to discard the comforting but untrue things we’ve told ourselves about ourselves, our circumstances and the people in our lives. Sometimes we will need to own up to things we’ve done. Perhaps we deserve more—or less—credit. We’ll want to dust off the defining moments of our lives and examine whether our perceptions of them are accurate. We may need to cut old enemies some slack, or conversely take down a few shrines.
And we will definitely need to see where God’s been at work in our lives.
What will we have left? What changes will a different reality make in our lives? Who will we be now? What will this mean for our actions and how we live our lives in the future? How could we reach out to others, mend old wounds, treat people differently?
These are questions that take courage to ask. They’re scary. But they can point to a different way of living, which, if we take it up, can be more Christ-honoring, more thoughtful, more authentic. Maybe it’s part of what being “born again” looks like.
If the story we've been telling ourself is false, what do we do then?