The Many Sides of Telling a Story


I spoke with a friend yesterday who’s recovering from breast cancer. I’ve known her for thirty years. When I asked how she was doing, she said, “Well, I’m learning how to get my story right.”

“Remember that story about me hunting with my father when I was a teen?” she asked. “The one where I had my .22 rifle and Dad went up ahead with the dog to flush out some quail?”

“Yes, I remember. You got stuck in some kind of quicksand.”

“Well I just figured out I’ve been telling the story wrong all these years. I’ve always told it like it was about me being left alone. Like my father left me and I was a victim. But the truth is, I figured out how to get out of the swamp. I threw my gun onto the shore. I lay down horizontally in the muddy water. I stretched out and grabbed onto a reed that I could use to pull myself in, and I saved myself. The story isn’t about being left alone. It’s a story of me saving myself. It’s a great story!”

And it was. It had power. It was about being a winner, not a victim. It was not a poor-me story, but a Wow! Look what I did story. And as the re-telling lifted her up, it lifted me up right along beside her.

I shared a story with her that I had just learned to re-spin as well. “Remember that story about me being sent home from the convent? How devastated I was, and with no plan B? Nowhere to go and no idea how to make a life? Remember what a sad story it was, how I always cried and thought I’d never get over it?”

“It was a sad story, Jan.”

“Yes, but it’s not anymore. The ending is different.”

“What changed?”

“For years I tried everything to heal myself. I wrote and asked why they dismissed me, but all I learned in return was that they thought I lacked a religious disposition because I was gay.”

“Well, you were gay.”

“Yes, but that has nothing to do with a religious disposition, so instead of helping me heal, that information only made it worse.”

“What did you do next?

“Well, after years of therapy, anger, grief, and alcohol and drug abuse, I went to the sister who was Provincial Director of the community when I was dismissed. I asked her if she’d let me sit with her and tell my side of the story to her. It was my last ditch effort. Thankfully she accepted and we made a date to get together. I told her the whole story, from age 12 when I decided to be a nun, to the night I was asked to leave and the years after when I went to the mailbox every day hoping for a letter saying they’d made a terrible mistake.”

“What did she do?”

“At the end of my story, she asked me to forgive her for the injustice that was done to me under her watch.”

“Oh my God…Then what?”

“I forgave her, and then she asked me to forgive the entire congregation for the injustice they did to me as a community.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, and then the most amazing thing happened. The whole cloud lifted. It occurred to me that there was nothing to forgive. They had given me the privilege of living a monastic life for two years, of discovering the formula for bliss, of spending an entire year in training for vows, learning how to balance my life with solitude, community, prayer and service. Then they set me free. There was no sad story anymore.”

“So what did the story become?”

“A story of nothing to forgive. Of life happening for me, not to me. A story of gratitude for those two years. where I found my three heroes: the monk Thomas Merton, the activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the mystic/scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The whole sad story turned into a blessing. It became a power story, just like yours, once I got it straight.”

“Wow,” she said. “Nice work. Good story!”

“And it only took 20 years,” I said, as we both erupted into laughter.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes to master our ordeals. It could be decades, with plenty of help from therapists, yoga teachers, spiritual directors, and best friends. That’s what we do for each other. We are sounding boards and satellite dishes, listening each other into being, helping each other share and shape the story of our lives.