When my oldest daughter Elena was a wee tot, there were parts of her bedtime routine that took a bit of wheedling and cajoling – brushing teeth and putting toys away can be a tough sell to a four-year-old.
But the bedtime story made it all worthwhile in the end. There were different story-universes and casts of characters that would rotate through the nightly feature. Still in nearly every story, the hero would be Elena herself.
“I just love stories,” she said one night, wriggling happily into her blankets and clutching her favourite stuffies. “And I especially love them when they’re about ME!”
I remember laughing at that, but it’s a perfectly human love!
We do love stories about us, and for good reasons. There’s extensive psychological research that indicates that thinking in narratives is a defining factor of human thinking, and that we tend to learn and teach most deeply in the context of stories. One of the ways stories stretch our brains is by encouraging us to predict what’s going to happen next, even envisioning all the way down to the resolution of the story arc. We then take what we’ve learned in stories and apply those skills in what we see as the story of our own life, and we plan out an ideal plotline for our number-one hero of heroes: ourselves.
In my career as an academic advisor at Queen’s University, I have advising conversations with students each day about the narratives they’re creating for themselves. As we talk through academic plans and next-steps, I often find myself saying these words to students: “That’s an excellent plan that you have laid out for yourself. And, I encourage you to hold that plan lightly.”
The concept of holding our plans and stories lightly can be incredibly hard.
I watch the reactions of students when I gently remind them that their hero’s plot might not unfold exactly as they’ve laid it out. Nearly all of them are in the headspace where they’re thinking (or even saying out loud), “Well, that might be the case for most other students who are in this situation, but I know it’s going to work out for me.”
When we’re hardwired to create story-arcs and we’ve been raised on heroes and happy endings, the idea that Things Might Not Work Out comes up against a nearly impenetrable wall in our minds. Worse still, those who favour the cherry-picking, everything-applies-to-me-at-all-times approach to scripture will toss us verses like Romans 8:28 or Jeremiah 29:11 that seem to prove that even God has rubber-stamped our perfect life plan.
It seems to me that the plans and stories that are the easiest for me to get a tight grip on are often the ones that I really should be holding most lightly. For example, plans that my teenaged kids will get excellent grades and make nothing but good decisions. That our family business will have financial success and perfect stability. That I and my whole family will be completely healthy. That my husband and I will never disagree about anything.
I can envision all these storylines so clearly that they don’t even feel like a projection. It’s wonderfully easy to believe that they are already real, even inevitable. But if my grip on those nice stories is too tight, when one or more goes off-script, my whole narrative can crumble. I can crumble. That’s life, and as Glennon Doyle famously says, life is brutiful – beautiful and brutal.
To paraphrase a well-known apostle, what shall we say then? Shall we stop making plans and imagining our stories, so that our crumbliness may decrease? By no means!
There’s a different pitfall in the other direction that can also get spiritualized, and that’s the “live as though you only have today, because the Lord could come tomorrow” approach. Sure, that’s helpful for things like letting go of resentment, but not so helpful for things like discovering your vocation or getting ready to retire. When I see a student who has been cruising through years of studies without planning for the courses their degree actually requires, warning-bells sound immediately. Planning, hoping, and goal-setting are healthy and important, even if we need to hold them lightly.
The takeaway that I try to give to the students I advise is not, “Keep in mind that when this plan of yours falls to pieces, this story will end permanently and badly.” It isn’t a depressing binary option between a perfect (unlikely) story and a (likely) horror story. The nuanced, challenging, encouraging version is that when we hold our plans lightly, we allow for shifts in our narrative arc that don’t shatter the whole world we’ve designed. Our stories – and our minds – become more flexible.
The things that I believe I do need to hold most closely can paradoxically feel the slipperiest, because they’re less about narrative and more about character and relationship. I need a tight grip on my knowledge of my own heart: who I am and who I hope to keep becoming. On my commitment to the wellbeing of my kids, my husband, and my close friends, and my faith that they are also committed to me. Above all, even if those should falter, on my assurance that Love is real, and that God is Love. In other words, these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is Love. (That apostle did write down some decent ideas.)
And so, on we go, daily rebalancing our grips, daily re-imagining our stories, daily reminding ourselves and each other of who we are in the light of God’s love.
Over and over, I find I need to hear, really deeply hear, the same words from God that I say to many students at the end of many an advising session. “Remember, if it turns out that things need to change from this plan, it’s not the end of the world. Just come back for another conversation.”