Well, which one describes your life, Seinfeld or Star Wars? Both of them are iconic in our culture, though they tell different stories. And we human beings sure do love our stories. Bedtime stories, scary stories, stories found in books, stories found on TV, stories that never leave our head. We are so addicted to stories that our brains even tell themselves stories while we sleep! It’s one of the reasons that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum have so much trouble finding common ground. Each side has a story, a narrative into which they can fit most major events. That narrative is compelling and it keeps a grip on the mind, making a person unlikely to change their views in the face of a few isolated facts.
But what is it that causes us to be so fond of story telling in worlds both real and imaginary? There are psychological and evolutionary explanations out there, but I’m asking for a deeper explanation, the metaphysical reasons behind even the psychological factors. And the answer to that question is this: because we actually are part of a story, the great story of creation, fall, redemption, and return to God. I was reminded of this connection between the human desire for stories and the Great Story while reading Fr. Michael Gaitley’s wonderful book “The One Thing is Three” (I highly recommend you read it: easy to approach, rich in content). At one point, he quotes the late Fr. Norris Clarke in a class saying this:
“In every culture, in every society, in every family throughout history, people like to tell and listen to stories, but nobody likes a story without a point, and we love happy endings. That’s because we all recognize deep inside that our lives are both gift and task, the task being that we’re called to make our lives into good stories! That is, they should have a point to them, and we want them to have a happy ending… God has a plan for our lives; there’s a specific way he wants us to help him bring all of creation back to himself…”
But what about my story?
This may be an encouraging thing to hear for the first time or to hear once again, but what do I do with this piece of information? That’s where my opening question comes in. Is your life like Seinfeld or like Star Wars? I ask this because one non-believing student who heard the above point from Fr. Clarke responded with brutal honesty:
“Father, this makes sense, and painful sense. I don’t feel that my life is a good story. Instead it’s more like the sitcoms I watch on TV. They’re just a series of episodes. There’s no real point to them as a whole. They just go from one stupid joke to another with no real end in mind. That’s my life and the lives of so many of my friends: We just go around from weekend to weekend, doing our best to have ‘fun’ so as to avoid the gnawing, inner ache of a hidden desperation. But you’re right. There is indeed something else inside me that’s crying out, ‘Make your life a good story!’ And in my own small way, I want to help the cosmos return to it’s source.”
A series of episodes… from one stupid joke to another. That is practically a description of Seinfeld. It is frequently called a “show about nothing” because the story has “no real end in mind.” For me, this is really brought home by the fact that the first and last episode of the series feature the same exact argument made by George: that the second button on a shirt is the most important button. This is an awful lot like the literary technique called “inclusio” often used in scripture. It denotes a theme or provides an interpretive key by framing a particular section with two identical or similar material. What’s the theme being brought home in this case? That the characters are focused on superficial and silly things. They accomplish nothing and go nowhere. The irony is strengthened by the fact that the second time George starts this conversation, they are all sitting in jail for choosing to video tape and mock a man being robbed instead of helping him.
Compare that to Star Wars, where everyone and everything is caught up in this cosmic battle between the Light and the Dark Side of the Force. From soldiers in battles, to unassuming droids, to background informants, to the “Chosen One” on center stage, there is a sense of purpose about the whole thing. Many of the characters are well of aware of that sense of purpose. I think it’s one of the reasons that Star Wars has such staying power. Indeed, many of the most popular shows and movie franchises appeal to that sense of a greater story that has hope for a good ending. That is also why shows about post-apocalyptic realities have such appeal. Especially in a show like Walking Dead, the characters are suddenly thrust from their superficial and boring lives into a constant adventure rife with conflict, but also full of a sense of purpose and immediacy. The grueling battle for survival tends to cure or at least obscure the existential “malaise” that afflicts so many of us.
But waiting for the Apocalypse isn’t the answer…
Love is. And I don’t mean love in a vague, emotional way, but in the truest Christian sense. Falling in love with someone will temporarily give our lives a story and a meaning, but that feeling often fades, especially when it is taken for granted or neglected. I mean a choice to love God and to live for him by choosing to care for his creation; to embrace your role in helping “the cosmos return to it’s source.”
You already have a role to play in the great story and you already have a purpose, so don’t wait for the apocalypse to start your life and don’t wait from Mr. or Mrs. Right to walk into your life to give you purpose. Yes, be diligent in discerning a vocation, but start by cultivating your little corner of the cosmos right now. Here is my customary list of places to start:
- Discipline: start with organizing your own life around divine priorities. What drives the plot in your (the character’s) life?
- Blessings: The Church has an entire repertoire of sacramentals that are designed to bring different pieces of the cosmos to God. Have your home, car, and most significant possessions blessed. Instead of thinking of them as good-luck charms, try to see these as moments of offering back to God what he has entrusted to you.
- Good Stories, not Bad Ones: Quit filling your head with pointless and wicked stories (Fifty Shades, for example). What you read and watch affects the way you think. If you expose your heart and mind to tons of aimless and wicked stories, you will think and feel in aimless and wicked ways.
- Patience and Humility: Learn from St. Therese of Lisieux. Your role in the cosmic story might be small and mostly invisible, but it is still real. Try not to wake up every day looking for something exciting and dramatic. Instead, end every day with an examen that shows you how to recognize the small things and to see the larger connections between each day.