Beyond the Me

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. – Robert Evans

You’d think after thirty years in print journalism writing thousands of newspaper stories and interviewing at least a half-dozen people every day it would be no big deal sitting down and writing a book. Instead of one story it’s just a more thorough exercise writing several dozen stories across a few hundred pages. Same thing, but more. That’s what I thought, too, and it’s one of the most misguided notions my brain ever conjured up.

My first book, Pilgrim Strong, was a memoir account about a Spanish pilgrimage where people from all over the world converge and walk anywhere from a hundred to a thousand miles or more.* The Way of St. James concludes in Santiago de Compostela where legend says the bones of St. James, apostle of Jesus are interred. 

The experience of walking across a country in a place where cultures, philosophies, and all sorts of belief systems collide ignited an all-new storytelling passion. On arrival back home I organized hundreds of notes into categories that looked vaguely like a book. A few days later I pulled up a chair to write that first book. The words flowed almost effortlessly, thousands at a sitting.

About ten thousand words into the manuscript I shipped the first seven chapters to my long-time editor, Brad Harris, who is both a magnificent teacher and scathing critic all in one. Brad has always given me permission to let him know just how brutal he may be

With my primary style and content editor, Brad Harris. This was our very first meeting almost seven years ago!

with his editorial comments. We use a one to ten scale and as we move through the process I direct him to dial his harshness up or down. His reply came in around a nine and it devastated me.

“I’m amazed at the great fondness you have for yourself,” he wrote. “If I see another “I” or “me” in this text I’ll stick a dull butter knife in my neck. Get over yourself.”

But it’s a memoir. What does he expect? I’m supposed to tell my story. How do you write a memoir outside a first-hand account? I struggled with the critique for days, then pretty much went on just as before.

A few weeks later we met at Brad’s favorite downtown Memphis cafe* where I asked him how I’m supposed to get around taking myself out of a memoir detailing my own experiences. And he did something then I’ll never forget.

“Describe for me what’s happening outside that window,” Brad said, sitting back patiently as if he’d just cast a line into his favorite fishing hole.

For the next few moments I went on to describe the dozens of scenes I saw, how they made me feel, even what I suspected might be going on in the university building across the street, the weather and the mood it aroused. It was a foggy, gray, fall-season morning in the South and it evoked a sleepy mood. Looking over his glasses, hands clasped across his mid-section, he let me go on a bit.

“Stop,” he said, a little drama in his tone.

“Now you’ve just done a great job explaining everything through your eyes and from your perspective,” Brad said. “This time, take yourself out of the scene, stop thinking about what you see, and tell me what’s happening out there. I want you to go beyond the me.”

In the second description I imagined myself hovering above it all looking down as an uninvolved observer. Somewhere in the description I completely forgot about myself and directed every ounce of focus to some imaginary person listening with great interest. In the new scene I was absent, and it was all about the other person. It felt like inviting someone to come along for a walk while holding hands.

Finishing the narrative, I turned to Brad.

“Now you’re telling a story, lad.* Well done.” (He loves calling me lad.)

Brad’s lesson over a western omelette, hash browns, and coffee that day changed my writing and much about my perspective on life. I see things, especially people and circumstances, differently now.

***

It’s a mystery why we view others the ways we often do. And it’s just as great a mystery why we feel so compelled to put on a facade of strength and act as if everything’s okay in our life when we could really use a friend. Listen to the greetings that get exchanged in your church lobby next Sunday morning, or the small talk at your weekly Rotary Club. You’d think no one has a problem in the world!

Rare is the case on social media where you’ll see someone get honest and transparent about a serious issue in their life and ask for prayer or help. Even less frequently do we convey our mistakes. Instead, we see images of perfect families practically always on vacation, every other day a celebration of something great and everyone’s beautiful. Everyone is #livinthedream if you gauge things by Instagram. This, despite the fact everyone knows that’s not nearly our life’s whole story. Why are we so reluctant to talk about and share adversity and pain? Moreover, what makes us view ourselves as less broken and not nearly as mixed up than our neighbor? Psychologists have studied this for years.

Think about all the stereotypes and those who get looked down upon most. Stay-at-home parents don’t do “real” work while working moms don’t spend enough time with their children. Drug addicts may receive their harshest judgment from overweight people who lust after food as if pornography. My personal favorite? One person refers to another as a moron* in the process creating a plural with an apostrophe and misspelling two words all in a single sentence. There’s something in our nature that says, …I may have a minor issue or two but at least I’m not as bad as that guy.

Researchers say whenever we make a big decision, particularly one requiring a substantial investment of time or resources, that we rationalize, idealizing the choice we made, and devaluing the one we rejected. For example, someone who chooses to rent a condo instead of buying a house will increasingly see more value in things like mobility, and less value in long payment plans that go toward ownership. Because almost anything we do is likely to have some downsides, it’s a mechanism that brings satisfaction instead of a constant longing for the things we don’t choose.

It’s interesting how this theory applies as we’ll even rationalize a key component of God’s economy when it comes to our free will, bad choices, and forgiveness.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

New American Standard Bible

We frequently distort this verse’s meaning to one that implies everything happens for  reason. It’s a wonderful way to justify and gloss over our mistakes by way of some mystic power that predetermines our every move and declares all things were meant to be. But that’s not how God works because he’s a God who loves us enough to grant our free will. We get to live our own lives. And just when we’ve screwed things up so badly it seems there’s no way out, our acknowledgment of those mistakes causes God to play the grace card. Through the worst, most awful, and the darkest circumstances we may create God turns on a light and makes a way out. He makes all things, the good and the bad, come together for His glory.

It manifests a problem, however, when the rationalization creates a rift between people who make different choices. Even if we don’t directly tell someone the reasons we disagree with their choices we may internalize feelings that can manifest in subtle ways. It’s a superiority complex that causes us to look down on others. All this in spite of the truth that God calls us to serve, not judge one another, and pay the grace forward.

-30-

 

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