Personal stories are what makes my heart beat fast. I love to hear a story, well told, about how someone came to be the person they are. Maybe that’s why I love writers like Flannery, or Pat Conroy, or Eudora. I have been unpacking all the cardboard boxes that provided transport for all my beloved friends…books, from Atlanta to the island. Settling into my new digs, I now have new stories to learn of this low country, and maybe tell.
I remember that as a young boy on the Southside of Atlanta, I attended Tull Waters Elementary, just down the road from Fulton High where my mother taught biology. She would drop me off early and I would go to the library and visit my favorite section, biography. I would check out a book a day, reading these short biographies of characters, mostly in American history.
Imagining that I am psychologically predisposed to be fascinated by stories of origin, I poured through books with the underlying detective instincts of what made this person “tick”. Even with my limited understanding, you could see immediate connections as to why people did certain things, why they pursued a particular and peculiar path. Their destination in life could be foreshadowed in their beginnings.
Now, this raises the eternal question of determinism and free will, which I answer with an emphatic, “YES!’ to both.
We are determined by certain genetic factors, given at the fateful collision of egg and sperm, or, sperm and egg, depending on your disposition and political leanings. My genes predetermined that I would be tall, 6’3″, and with a build that would not lend itself to being a jockey at Churchill Downs, an unfortunate turn of events for a horseman such as myself. On the other hand, I received some traits that served and serve me well, such as my native curiosity and wicked sense of humor, both bequeathed from my mother.
But as a confirmed and practicing existentialist, I believe in the power of deciding, of self-determination, of human choice. “Two roads emerged in the woods” and I, of course, chose the path less travelled, which condemned me to my maverick way. Choice. Freedom. My own McBrayer Scots background took, as its motto, “In Defiance”……how typically Scottish.
So genetics, free choice, and then mystery. The chance occurrence, the chance meeting, the odd happening, all mixes the brew of existence within the witchy caldron of being. I have written before of the decision of my home room teacher, Mr. Jordan, who moved the most popular girl in my class, who was talking too much in the back of the room to our star halfback, to sit next to me, the most shy boy. The result was an unforeseen opportunity to talk with the girl that most intrigued me, and scared me most. At the end of the year, I had made a life-long friend but had a new found confidence that changed my sense of self. A chance move makes a huge impact.
I recently saw one of my favorite programs on PBS, American Experience, as it presented a two episode series on the presidency of Bill Clinton. William Jefferson Blythe was born in the now-fabled Hope, Arkansas. But his father, the proverbial traveling salesman, was killed in a car accident on a rain-slick highway. His mother remarried a man named Roger Clinton, who was an alcoholic and inflicted violence on his family. The program recounts how Bill was talented, popular, seeking approval of others, and hell bent on hiding the secrets of his destructive family life.
As I watched the unfolding of Clinton’s career, I was struck by the way in which these opening events of his life formed and shaped what was to come. His backstory helped to bring understanding to his peculiarly tragic/heroic political play. I met Bill when he was on his initial bus ride start of his campaign as he came through Tyler. I have never experienced the way he literally lit up the room with his charisma. It was an odd experience as this man from Hope touched the people he encountered and gave them a charge of energy, even in the very backyard of his opponent, George H. W. Bush. Retrospectively, I was struck by his original name, Blythe, a word that means “happy, and carefree” but has been loaded through time with the connotation of “not paying attention as one should”. Both spins seem to be apt for the Comeback Kid, born in the Baptist village of Hope but raised in casino town of Hot Springs. This begs for a country song.
Like I said, I love stories. I was fortunate to get my first job in academia listening to stories of people that were a part of our research at Emory’s Center for Faith Development. I had a ring-side seat as people would tell their stories, of what happened to them in their childhood, their lives, and how they had made sense out of all that mess. Homo poeta, human beings who are meaning makers. Our theory was that all people take the events of their lives and do the work of finding meaning, making sense out of thing called life.
I carried that skill into my work as a therapist and as a priest. Today, in my work as a coach, I listen carefully as to how people have negotiated this journey of life, where they have chosen to find value and invest their time and energy, and how they are trying to lean into the future in a meaningful way.
What is your story?
How do you see the lay of the land of human existence?
How are you living out your days here on this planet?
How has this intrusion of a virus changed the way you see life, or confirmed your view?
If you are so inclined, drop me a note as to how you might answer any or all of these questions. Over the last few months, many of you have reached out with your reflections on life, on the process of moving, on pain, on disruption, on meaning. I am always honored to receive your thoughts. So, what’s your story?