Living an awesome story
A good nickname for me would be “Inertia,” because, like the dictionary definition of the word, I tend to “exist in a state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”
If my choice is accepting an invitation to go to an interesting social event or continuing to sit in front of my computer, I’ll choose the latter. If I had an idea for a new way to decorate the living room, I wouldn’t do it, even if I had the time or money. In other words, left to my own devices, I tend to do nothing.
As usual, it almost always comes down to fear. I have this personality quirk where I’m always worried about doing the wrong thing and screwing something up, so I find it easier to avoid change, even if it means missing out on good opportunities. (This is also one of the reasons I have such trouble with decision making in general; if I order a cheeseburger at a restaurant, for example, I’m immediately plagued with the thought, WHAT IF I SHOULD HAVE ORDERED THE SHRIMP INSTEAD?!?! Yeah. It’s hard to be me.)
Anyway, I’ve had this tendency my whole life. But then, earlier this year I discovered a book. And everything changed.
It started when Brandon Vogt left this comment to my post asking for book recommendations. He raved about Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, listing all the changes he and his family had made after Miller’s book had prompted them to wonder how they could turn their life into a great story (which now has included building a computer lab in Africa). Intrigued, I read the book.
It begins with Miller stuck in a funk after writing his smash bestseller, Blue Like Jazz. He’d written a couple of other books that didn’t do so well, and his life was at a standstill. Then he got a call from some producers who wanted to make a movie out of Blue Like Jazz; and since it was a memoir, that means they’d be making a movie of his life. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is the chronicle of what he learned in the process. Two guys named Steve and Ben came out to write the screenplay with him, and in one of the book’s first scenes, Steve mentions that they’ll need to take some liberties with his story in order to make it a good movie. Don asked why they couldn’t just use the facts of his real life. Steve replies:
Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”
That last line rang in my ear like an accusation. I felt defensive, as though the scenes in my life weren’t going anywhere. I mean, I knew they weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t seem okay for someone else to say it. I didn’t say anything; I tried to think about the philosophy of making movies so my face would look like I was thinking about something other than the fact that Steve didn’t think my life was going anywhere.
This prompted him to start asking: What does a great story look like? What would my life look like if it were an amazing story? He writes:
In creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. I was creating someone I could live through, the person I’d be if I redrew the world, a character that was me but flesh and soul other. And flesh and soul better too.
He learns a lot about what it means to live a great story, but the lesson that most resonated with me was the one about fear. There’s never been an Academy Award winning movie about someone who lived his life cowering in fear, never taking action because he’s worried about messing something up.
The great stories go to the ones who don’t give in to fear.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.
This was a profound insight for me. Reading of Don’s metamorphosis from couch potato to a risk-taking man of action inspired me to do the same in my own life. My decision-making flowchart used to begin with the question, Is there any risk involved? And if I could imagine the slightest thing that could go wrong, I usually wouldn’t do it. Now I begin with the question, Would it make a good story? And if the answer is yes, I usually do it.
Obviously, asking ourselves if it would make a good story is not the only litmus test we should use for decision-making. We need to consider if it’s prudent, if it’s God’s will, etc. And, as Brandon points out in one of his (excellent) posts on the book, we need to make sure we’re living our story with God, not seeing him as an uninterested editor. But incorporating that question into my thought process has changed my life. Stories inevitably contain both ups and downs, challenges as well as triumphs, and thinking of it this way has helped me get over my fear of making mistakes. Rather than thinking of a risk that didn’t pay off as the end of the world, I now see it as just another part of the story.
Don Miller rewrote his life story by searching for his father and asking a cute girl he barely knew to hike the Inca Trail with him in Peru. What would it look like for me, a suburban housewife with five young kids, to live a great story?
I’ve started saying yes to more social invitations. When I’m pretty sure God is calling me to do something, I just do it, without the usual detour down Overanalysis Lane that leads me to talk myself out of it. I’m less likely to decide to do something out of guilt alone, so I’m better at saying no when I need to. Ironically, it’s made me take myself less seriously (in a good way), since thinking of the events of my life as part of a grander story helps put them all in perspective.
What I learned from this book was to not let fear hold me back; to think big; to expand the scope of what I believe it’s possible for one person to accomplish. I’ve learned to put 100% of myself into every moment, and to let go of worries about whether everything will turn out perfectly.
At the end of the book, Miller talks about a great movie he once saw about a real football team. To his surprise, the screenwriters chose to cover the year they almost won the state championship game, rather than the year they did win it. The screenwriters understood that that year they lost was the better story, because that was the time the team had tried hardest and sacrificed most. As Miller points out: It’s not necessary to win for the story to be great; it’s only necessary to sacrifice everything.