“Lindsey, you know how you and I have often talked about the literary quality of life? Do you think we are in control of our stories or not?”
“I’m pretty sure we’re not.”
A friend of mine recently started off our phone conversation this way. It was a great hook. This is something that I’ve written about and thought about for years. Every time I feel that this subject is tired, that I’ve said all that I can say, I see an ad for Donald Miller’s organization Storyline and I know I have to write about it again. While Miller’s right that life is made up of the elements of a good story (setting, conflict, climax), the uncomfortable truth is that we aren’t the authors of our own stories. While mapping out your life plan like a story chart sounds wonderful, the frightening beauty of life is that it rarely cooperates with our plans.
Working in the business of in-store promotions, a majority of the staff members that I train and work with are retirees. I love that I so often get a chance to hear their stories. We have a woman who was a flight attendant. She’s traveled all over the world and lived in Italy for years. We have another woman (one of my absolute favorites) who owned and ran three different types of businesses and sold them all. She has tried almost every profession you can think of because she loves a new challenge. She did most of it while raising three children on her own. We have another woman who was a social worker who spent years living in New Orleans and California. And on and on the variety of stories go. What is common to most of them is that life took them in directions they never would have expected or planned.
Most of you know that my life hasn’t gone how I planned. The same friend who posed that question said to me, “I could tell when you were in grad school that you weren’t going to be happy in the life you imagined.” It’s so funny to me how some of the people in my life recognized that long before I did. Though not all of them were as insightful, which I’m glad about because it makes me feel better about being wrong (it’s so much easier to be wrong in good company).
The most valuable thing that I am learning is that you can live an intentional life without living a storybook life. Clarity of both purpose and pursuit isn’t always necessary.
This truth really freaks me out! I can have a laissez faire attitude sometimes but that’s usually when it comes to other people’s lives. Not mine. I remember telling a friend who graduated college before me not to worry too much about what profession he would have because “life has a way of figuring those things out for us.” Then I spent practically three years freaking out about the same question. While I was mentally exhausting myself asking big questions and trying to compose a beautiful outline of my life, I was completely oblivious to the fact that I am already living out a story. A story that I’m far more suited for.
Since my senior year of high school, I have been in the business of planning and orchestrating events, training, managing and leading people along with writing, public speaking and teaching. These are the things that I excel at and that I love doing. I almost can’t resist them. What frustrated me is that they don’t fit neatly under one job description (at least none that I’ve come across so far). Student Affairs seemed like a good fit but it wouldn’t have left enough time to write. Teaching seemed like a fit but it wouldn’t make use of my event planning or management skills. The politics of academia doesn’t suit me either. Being an Event Coordinator & Regional Trainer is great but it doesn’t make sense of the intellectual half of me. Et cetera ad nauseam. Not being able to settle on one job that brings together these two halves of myself—the thinker/writer/teacher and the event planner/manager—frustrated me. I kept thinking that I’d be so much happier and more productive if only I could find one job with these facets. But I’m starting to see that I like having separate spheres of my life. I like having one occupation that takes me out of my apartment, stretches me past my comfort zone and utilizes my extroverted side and I like having one occupation that lets me stay at home and feed my introverted side.
My literary nature was also hungry for an obviously meaningful and impactful career. I’ve envied Christa who is a nurse that primarily serves the underprivileged and Nichelle who is a teacher in an underprivileged area. I wanted to be a part of saving people’s lives just as they are. What meaning is there in the promotions business? When I expressed a little of this to my mom, she said that she’s realized that my work will always be meaningful as long as I work with people. As I look back on the many wonderful conversations I’ve had with my coworkers and customers, I see what she means. Bringing simple joy to people’s lives and listening to their stories is meaningful. In a culture in which people are increasingly neglecting those in front of them (because we are staring at our smartphones instead of talking to each other) it is an even more valuable thing. Maybe I’m not saving lives but that doesn’t mean my work has no value or significance.
While I am learning that I can’t follow my intentionally plotted out course for my life, there are things that I can be intentional about: Actively looking for the good in people, even in the people who annoy me. Treating everyone with kindness and respect even when they smell awful or are physically disfigured or offend other cultural standards of beauty (these are the minorities that I think face some of the worst discrimination). Allowing people to take precedence over my plans and giving my attention to them in its entirety when we are talking–as much as possible, of course. Giving myself permission to relax and re-energize when I need it. Sparking deep conversations about life and God and relationships. Seeking to see God’s hand in my life and others. Seeking to see God’s face in my life and others. These are the things that are in my control. This is the type of intentionality that will matter when I’m laying on my deathbed.
It’s pretty obvious to me that my life will never achieve the storybook standards that I have for it. But it will continue to surprise me in wonderful and meaningful ways like when Saundra reached out to me to join her on that first promotional tour or how I was recently surprised when Huffington Post Live reached out to me to be a part of a segment (I probably should’ve mentioned this before). While I’ve lost all surety that I know where my story is headed, I have a better sense of who I am in this story. That’s good enough.
My favorite pastor, Rick McKinley, often talks about how we are all characters in God’s story. God doesn’t write predictable stories. He likes to subvert our expectations and surprise us. He likes to challenge us far more than we would choose to challenge ourselves. But He also makes the ordinary extraordinary. He bringing meaning into the mundane. Though I can’t promise that I’ll stop wrestling for narrative control of my life, I’m gaining a far greater appreciation for its actual author.