“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”
Early this summer, I read the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston-based doctor, researcher, and author, famous for books that have transformed the medical world, specifically The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications.
Being Mortal is the first of Gawande’s books that I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. He is a brilliant, gifted story teller, and the stories of people at the end of their lives that are woven through Being Mortal touch the deep parts of my soul. In short, he accomplishes what he sets out to do: recognize what it is to be a human, designed for life but trapped in a finite body.
But this post is not a review of what is without doubt a fine book; instead I am struck by his emphasis on life as story.
At one point while I was growing up, there was an emphasis at my boarding school on finding the “perfect will of God”. As a teenager, this became incredibly important to me. How could I find that perfect will? How could I know that my every decision would lead me into that perfect will of God? I prayed fervently and breathed deep sighs of relief during those times when I felt I had “found” that perfect will. Like treasure buried deep beneath the earth, one had to dig hard to find that perfect will. It was elusive. Others seemed to find it, but not me.
In later years I came to see this from a completely different perspective. I came to see my journey with God as far bigger than finding God’s perfect will. Because who of us can know that perfection? We are told in the scriptures that we “see through a glass dimly” and “know in part”. I began to realize that finding God’s perfect will was not what the Christian life or Gospel message is about. Instead, it is understanding that life is story, and God in his infinite love has us and redemption at the center of the story.
When our lives are reduced to a quest for a perfect will or a series of decisions, they become mediocre. As Gawande says “Life is meaningful because it is a story.”
When my Christian life is reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, then it becomes mediocre and joyless. Just as I struggled in high school when I was anxiously searching to find the perfect will of God, I struggle thinking that if I don’t do the right thing at the right time, I will fall under God’s disapproving stare. I will then either anxiously try to do the right thing to please him, or I will ignore him alltogether. Neither option is palatable. They are both exhausting and defeating.
Because here is what I’ve come to know: God has written a story, a love story, and that love story has people at its center. Our lives are a story within the Greatest Story. While dos and don’ts diminish the story, understanding the Author’s great love for us enhances it.
Life as story is deeply comforting. It takes pressure off me. I stop seeing life as a series of events and choices, of dos and don’ts and begin to see the beauty of a narrative. When I reclaim my Christian faith as a story, I re-discover its beauty.
It makes me want to live the best story possible.
“There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics [in the Bible], of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it.” NT Wright