One of the first thinkers who had an impact on my way of conceiving the world was psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The originator of the term, identity crisis, Erikson was seminal in his thinking about the stages or phases of human life, the passages we all make in a lifetime.
At the beginning of my professional work, I was designing a research project at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. My colleagues and I were looking to find a methodology that would assist persons in their process of looking back on their past experience. Erikson was front of mind as I imagined a way to evoke the stories that made up a life. He had posited a sequence of ages that all humans move through, which concludes with what he called a life review. At the end, Erikson said that all persons look back over their lives in a quest of making sense out of the events. The central question is whether or not there is a thread of meaning that runs through their sense of self. Does the narrative have a sense of meaning or not? If there is meaning, the person enters into the last phase of life with hope. Without that prevailing sense of meaning, a despair pervades.
In listening to people in clinical, pastoral, business, and personal settings, I have found that Erikson is right. People naturally string together selected moments of their lives into narratives, stories, that tell themselves and explain to others just who they are. Every person is, in fact, an editor of his/her story, including some events, highlighting some, excising others, and forgetting others. Each person composes a story that they tell about themselves, a story that has mostly to do with identity, that is, who I am. In Eriksonian terms, it’s the way they form their identity., the sense of self. And, if given enough time, it is how they present themselves to others, how they introduce themselves. This is me.
Whenever I speak to groups about this topic of story, I often begin with an old joke about how people tell others who they are when time is short and there is no time for a story, a kind of personal shorthand. If you are from Atlanta, you begin by telling them what you do for a living. If you are from Augusta, you tell them who your grandmother was. If you are from Macon, you tell them what church you go to. And if you are from Savannah, what you drink. The example played well on the circuit but is somewhat particular to Georgia and a bit dated these days. However, it makes the point that if we have time, and we really want to be known by the “other”, we tell our story.
As I am spending time writing, I have been doing my own life-review of sorts. Stories from my childhood, from high school buddies, and college friends fill the front of the narrative. Later, my relationships, my marriage, my children predominate. And of course, there are stories I paid for by being a priest/pastor in a variety of congregations of people. When I was leaving my parish in Tyler, Texas after a decade of service, the Queen Bee of the parish stopped me on my way out and asked, rather, charged me: “Well, I guess you’re off to Atlanta to go write about all of us?”. I stopped, smiled, and with the sense of humor of my mother gave me, “No. Only you, Bitsy!”. The look on her face was worth the ten years of blood, sweat, and tears that I spent in that parish. Bitsy was, in fact, a great example of a person who had carefully constructed a public story of being a tough, hard-nosed person, but her many acts of compassion, carefully hidden, spoke of a kind heart that could not be missed, in spite of her bluster. Every one of us carries a story that we have edited for public consumption.
Reviewing my life has me asking some questions about how things happen, and more importantly, “why”. In short, my musing comes down to this: is our life formed by twists of fate or defining moments? My existential bias leaves me wanting it to be the later, a defining moment in which a human person makes a conscious, intentional decision. Sounds heroic, huh? That is the preface for a heroic story, a hero’s narrative. The hero’s journey is natively appealing to me. My mother named me David, which blessed and cursed me with a proclivity for heroic acts, namely in the face of overbearing giants. My belief is that my name has unconsciously led me into some tight spaces. And as the Sufi story goes, could be good news, could be bad news. Who knows?
I have had many such “defining” moments during my lifetime. However, I have found that when I look carefully, and honestly, there are moments forming my story of which I had no control. Certain things just happened to me, causing my life to veer in some surprising ways. Over the next month, I’ll be sharing with you some of those defining moments as well as the twists of fate that shaped and are shaping my life.
My hope is that you will enjoy the telling of my story, recognizing that I am the very example of editing the text. I’ve been telling those stories of my living South of God for all these years. It’s been a good ride, and in the words of St. Jerry of Garcia, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
But more importantly, I hope it prompts your reflection on your own story, your narrative as human in this world. I hope that you will remember times that you were pressed to decide, when the cost of deciding was all too clear there was a price to pay. And I hope you might pause to consider those twists and turns that have shaped the path of your life. We all have a story, and learning to tell it well is part of our burden and glory of being a human. I invite you to the sacred fire where stories are told. Blessings.