Dear Tristan: What’s Your Story?

Dear Tristan,

Your life is a story.

My last few letters have centered on truth: What is it? What isn’t it? How do you know it when you see it? Can you know it when you see it? How do you go looking for it?

Today I want to write about where it fits. I want to share my thoughts about the story that is your life.

You see . . . like I said in my last few letters. “Truth” is not mere facts . . . data points . . . bits and pieces of information. These can all be “true,” but they are not “truth.” Truth requires context. It requires history. It requires story.

I’ve always loved epics: epic novels, epic movies, epic stories. I love how wide such stories are . . . the fact that they don’t, as so many movies and books do, focus all their energy on a few hours, days or weeks in the life of their characters. I feel so much more connected to the characters in such a story when I can follow them along for years at a time . . . when I can experience with them the grand sweep of their lives.

I think it’s important for each of us to understand that we are in the midst of the grandest, most sweeping epic of all . . . the epic of human history. I also enjoy fantasy literature . . . I enjoy the creativity with which a truly good fantasy author can spin a new universe into existence and drop the reader squarely into it to discover things as they do not exist in our own universe. But the disappointing thing about fantasy is its scope . . . J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and his other books about the world of “Middle-Earth,” Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, George R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire . . . these are all amazing fantasy epics, each of which spans many volumes . . . but none of them can compare to the story of your life. For your life has all of human history behind it . . . even including the lives of the authors of these great works of literature.

There’s a common cliche we use when we want to put one another “in our place.” I’ve used it myself to describe someone who I’ve found to act in an annoyingly unthinking and inconsiderate manner: “Who does that guy think he is, the center of the universe?”

In a very real sense, the answer to that question is yes. We are each at the center of our own universe . . . the title role in the stories of our own lives. There is nobody else who will experience his or her story quite like you will yours, because you are the only one who will experience it from your perspective. From your perspective, the universe as you observe it stretches out from you in every direction. From your perspective, you are the center of your universe.

This realization is a big part of the empathy I wrote about in some of my earlier letters. While we usually mean the whole “center of the universe” paradigm to describe someone as rude, thoughtless and unobservant, the truth is that when we realize that we are all at the center of our own, interlocking universes, it allows us to be less rude, thoughtless and unobservant. When you realize that the person driving the car that just cut you off, or the person in front of you in line who is rifling through his pocket to try to find enough coins to pay for his lunch, or the person who took fifteen items in their cart through the “five items or less” aisle at the grocery store, is each dealing with his or her own story, it becomes much easier to empathize with them. When you start seeing the bigger story, it helps you to see the people in it as people and not just as props. Maybe that person in the other car just got laid off and is distracted by trying to figure out how to feed his family. Maybe the person in line at the checkout is trying to figure out how he’s going to pay for this meal and still have enough left over to pay for gas so he can get to work. Maybe the person at the grocery store is trying to hurry home to a sick child. Maybe . . . maybe a million different things. A million different stories.

And it’s the story of your life – and the lives of those with whom you have relationships – that make up the truth as it appears to you . . . the truth from your perspective, which is not the same, in some very important ways, as the truth from my perspective, or anyone else’s. Like I said in my earlier letter about Truth, 2+2=4 may be a true statement, but it is not “Truth.” Similarly, “Tristan is a boy” is a true statement . . . but it falls far short of “the truth,” because it doesn’t tell us anything about your life. It doesn’t tell how you struggled through 48 hours of labor to be born, your heart beating steadily away the whole time, as we waited anxiously to see if it would drop and we’d have to take you and your mom to the hospital to get you out. It doesn’t tell how you have this way of knowing just what you want at any given time, and how you refuse to be placated when your mom or I can’t quite figure out what that is, and try to offer you something else instead. It doesn’t tell about how you dearly long to be able to stand, and walk, even though you don’t have the strength or balance to do so . . . and the look of wondrous rapture on your face for the few fractions of a second after I let go of your hands and leave you suspended on nothing but your own two feet, before you come tumbling back down into a sit. It doesn’t tell of the peals of laughter you let loose upon seeing yourself in a mirror. It doesn’t tell of the look of pure joy that covers your face when your mom or I come into the room, even if we’ve only been gone a few moments in a different part of the house.

These are pieces of the story of your short life so far . . . a story of strength and determination and playfulness and curiousity and love. Your story.

I remember a conversation with a good friend of mine in college, who was expressing the desire to learn more about some of our classmates . . . to get to know them better and more deeply, as she put it. I remember telling her that to me it sounded like something else: it sounded like rather than wanting to know them, she wanted to know about them.

I think we all have this tendency . . . and that’s what facts and bits of data are able to do very well . . . they can tell us a lot about someone. But learning about someone is easy! Give me a few bits of data about someone: name, email, phone number, address and so forth, and within half an hour I’ll be able to tell you a lot about them. It’s a whole lot harder to actually know someone. To know someone, you have to not just learn pieces of data . . . you have to get to know their story. And the only way to really do that is to become part of it. And the only way to do that is to have a relationship with them.

Your mom and I were once having a conversation with another couple who was having a really rough time in their relationship. The husband was trying to communicate with us, and with his wife, his disapproval of some of the decisions she was making. He asked us, by way of analogy, if we saw someone (meaning his wife, in this case) driving their car in a dangerous direction and headed for a cliff, what we thought the best way would be to get them to stop. He said that the only thing he could think of was to react in a way that might seem harsh – to “run them off the road,” he said – but would ultimately save their life.

We hunted around trying to think of how to put a kinder, gentler answer for a while. There was talk of putting up roadblocks and gently steering them in a safer direction. But finally I figured out what it was that had been bothering me about the whole conversation . . . there was no relationship in it. It was all very passive, very detached . . . almost theoretical . . . almost clinical.

I sort of sat and brooded on how to say what was in my heart for awhile, until your mom noticed that something was bothering me. She asked me what it was, and I said, “You don’t run them off the road. You don’t put up roadblocks. You get in the car with them!”

That’s what a relationship looks like . . . that’s what it means to become a part of someone’s story, and to let them into yours. It means you are willing to share life with them even when it’s hard, or dangerous, or you disagree with them, or you don’t like some of the choices they’re making. It means you trust them with a piece of your heart, even knowing it might get broken.

It means that the person is more important than the rules. After all, Jesus Himself said that the whole law . . . all of the rules and regulations and “do’s” and “don’ts” and “should’s” and “shouldn’ts” in Scripture come down to two relationships: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s the story of human history at its core: The story of you and your neighbor . . . and all your neighbors in this little cul-de-sac of the universe that we know as “Earth.”

So be aware that you are the lead character in the story of your life . . . and not just the lead character, but a co-author. Like we discussed in some of my earlier letters, God created us to make choices, and He has given you some very real choices in your story . . . given you the opportunity to write major sections of the plot.

Treasure that! Treasure your story, your place in it, and the fact that – unlike those movies or books – you have the ability to alter its course in meaningful ways. Make the most of those choices. Make the most of your story and your place in other people’s stories. When you see people as people . . . as the center of their own stories and universes rather than a collection of statistics wrapped up in skin, that’s when real relationships can happen. And those are the relationships that will change your life forever.


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