Paying Attention to our Life-Stories

Written by on December 17, 2010

“Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane?” Walker Percy asks this question in his novel The Second Coming. With his character Will Barrett–a lonely widower, recently retired from a very successful business career—Percy confronts us with a person who has confused all the activity of his life for genuine movement or growth. Such a confusion has led…

..Will Barrett, late in his life, to wonder whether he has “missed” his life. Percy writes of Barrett,

“Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream.”

Will Barrett awakens to the illusions of his life and begins to pay attention to the emptiness of his heart. And this unrest emerges from within him like an invitation – an invitation to “step back” and pay attention.  

We are not passive spectators in our own lives although many of us, like Will Barrett, try to live that way.  Learning and growth requires being alert and responsive in one’s world. By using this life story framework, we can step back and take a more objective look upon the “what” and the “when” and the “who” of earlier chapters, thus both confirming what has taken place in our maturing and confronting what is needed for further maturity. Educator Marsha Rossiter suggests that a narrative orientation for development helps usher the adult learner into a more objective stance in terms of making decisions or choices for growth.  She writes:

The point is that the very act of telling or writing the story of one’s own development enables a person to step back from it, to reflect on it, and to make choices about how to interpret it and how to change it.  This—making choices about one’s life narrative—is the key to understanding the power of telling one’s own story.  To be the teller or author of a story is to have authority over it—to choose what to tell and how to tell it, to determine the kind of story that it will be.  This connection between authority and authorship makes the telling of the self-narrative empowering and potentially transformative.[1]

 According to Rossiter, reflecting upon our lives as a life story provides a way to understand our roles not just as actors, but even authors in our unfolding stories. We are active participants who can make choices and chart new directions. And this discovery can make all the difference in someone’s life by instilling a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation. Daniel Taylor writes,

We are co-authors as well as characters. Few things are as encouraging as the realization that things can be different and that we have a role to play in making them so. This is possible only if we are real characters not passive victims or observers. Seeing ourselves as active characters in new and healthy stories carries the power to transform lives.[2]

 This looking back provides perspectives which foster choice, even change in our present and future. If we believe that God is co-authoring our stories, then reflecting upon the processes through which the Spirit has worked in our lives can facilitate a better understanding of what it is God may be “up to” in the “rewriting” of our stories. For when we prayerfully pay attention together to our lives, the Spirit of God invites and empowers us to greater cooperation with God’s way in the world. Blessings on the journey…

[1] Marsha Rossiter, “Understanding Adult Development as Narrative,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education Number 84, Winter 1999, 83-84.

[2] Daniel Taylor, Tell Me A Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, (St. Paul, MN:  Bog Walk Press, 2001), 3.

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