Unraveling The Threads: On Changing Our Stories
I was walking through the city’s literary festival last weekend, my fingers grazing the spines of book after book after book. The air was muggy and smelled like soft leather and old paper. There are so many stories in the world. Stories that teach us. Stories that mold us. Stories that wound us. The ones we tell to others, and the ones we tell to ourselves. We tell stories about other people—I’m not like them. They’re not relatable. I look up to that. Some women are just—. People are just so—. I wish I could be like her.
At this festival, a friend and I were talking about the importance of stories. She was listening to a podcast that had made an argument that stories were bad for people. The podcaster’s argument was a framework about why narrative was bad—essentially a story about why we should stop telling stories. I don’t think stories are bad. But I do think there is such a thing as a bad story. It got me thinking; what do we do with a bad story? What happens when a story has run its course? When the stories we tell ourselves, or others, no longer serve us or the greater good?
My first thought is, of course, change the story. But that is not always easy, because we are not just one story. We are layers of interconnected stories that stretch out like little threads to the ones we love and interact with. Untying the threads can be complicated and painful. Other people will be invested in those threads, and the way you talk about yourself. Others might get angry or upset that you’ve decided that your story must change. You might feel the loss of your own story changing, too.
When I first stepped back from working in a church, I felt like I had severed all the threads in my life. It felt like slash and burn self-development. It was necessary, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. In the uncertainty that lingered after, I began to realize that the story I had told myself about my call was deeply entangled with my self-worth and who I thought I was, not just as a pastor, but as a person. It took time to unravel these threads and put them back together. It took awhile to realize just how limiting the story I was telling about myself was. As if God were so small that there wouldn’t be a place for my ministry outside of the boundaries of a church, or even a paying career.
The thing that I was not at all prepared for, however, was how invested other people were in the story of Emily The Parish Minister. In hindsight, of course they were. These are people who love me and care about me. Of course my mom is going to be worried about a job change; she’s my mom. And, I’m sure that when I changed my story it was a challenge in other ways. After all, what do you say to your church friends about your clergy child when she quits her job and is not doing anything, well churchy? What stories do you tell when the outcome is unclear? How do you support your child (or friend/spouse/sibling) and also tell the truth? What the hell kind of story is a story without an ending?
Colleagues reacted when I changed my story, too. Some of it was care and concern; I was processing a lot and felt a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, that I’m sure was being communicated through words and body language. But some of those reactions still linger, even after I’ve processed my feelings about the way I’ve shifted in my call. I see it in a person’s struggle to introduce me because I don’t have a “real” position. I don’t currently fit the categories that signify legitimacy in the wider church setting, so it’s hard for others to explain where I am without it getting awkward.
Sometimes, it’s a colleague’s crossed arms—it’s the head tilt and patronizingly soft voice when they ask, “So. How are you really doing?” It (probably) comes from a good place, but I suspect that for some, my choice to step back and reevaluate the work I’m doing brings up their own fears, doubts, frustrations, or resentments. We project onto others the stories that we can’t quite bear looking at.
I don’t know that there are easy ways to rewrite our stories. I think it takes a lot of patience, support, and good boundaries. The stories we tell reach out to others in ways we can’t always predict. But I think that letting bad stories die is important and necessary work. Work that changes us, and altars our relationships to others and with others. Work that gives space for new stories to blossom.
When do you know when a story has run its course? What do you do when you decide it has?