Your life is a true story. There is no better way to understand it than that. It is not just a random sequence of quantifiable events (a scientific “object”), nor is it a mere fantasy. It is a work of creative nonfiction, a compelling tale in relation to which you are simultaneously the author, the narrator, and the main character.
That means you have a lot of control: Not only do you get to live your story, with all of its glorious sights and sounds and smells. You also get to choose how to make sense of it, both for yourself and for others. You get to decide which parts to tell and how to tell them, which bits to embellish and which to downplay.
But here’s the rub: No matter how you choose to tell it, your story is still nonfiction. And that means you don’t get to make it up as you go. You will have to deal with the actual facts, not just the alternative ones. You will have to respond, on the spot, to events that you never saw coming.
You may find yourself laid off, not because you didn’t do the work but because your company crumbles. Or you may find that the career path you’ve chosen at 22 leads only to misery at 29. You may find that the partner you’ve picked is a liar, a cheat, a slob, or all of the above. You may find yourself broke or broken-hearted. Worse, you may find yourself standing in a hospital emergency room, holding a sick child. Or (God forbid) sitting in an oncologist’s office trying to fathom the meaning of the word “malignant.”
It’s in these moments that the story you tell will matter most. When being creative isn’t about glossing your latest success for the boys at the bar or the girls at the gym. When it’s about finding a way through existential darkness.
At times like this, reality must be reckoned with. But you don’t have to let it run roughshod through your soul. You can still choose to tell your truth creatively–with enough objective accuracy to give you a real place to stand, yet enough artistic license to enable you to move.
You can choose to use the full force of your imagination to fashion a new way forward, to change the plan you thought would unfold before you, to reframe your reality in terms that give you traction. You can tell a tale that’s both true enough to provide solid ground to stand on and inspiring enough to help you move forward–a story in which you appear as your own hero.
As I’ve pointed out before, being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean being powerful or beautiful or even successful. At a much more basic level, it simply means taking on the task at hand with whatever strength you can muster.
During one of the darkest times in my life, when I had just lost my mom to cancer, I went to visit my grandmother at the nursing home where she lived. After leading a proudly independent life for decades, Grandma had watched both her daughter and her beloved son-in-law (my Uncle Mike) die, each struck down by cancer in their fifties.
In the meantime, she had become largely bedridden herself. Now almost 90, she lived in a small room with a single bed, an armchair beneath a window, and an array of family pictures on the wall. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot left, to tell you the truth.
As we visited, Grandma did her best to smile–until a heaviness overtook her and a few tears began to fall.
“I prayed, you know,” she said. “Every day, I prayed. I asked God to take me instead of your mother.”
I reached over and placed my right hand on top of her left one. Her skin felt cold, and her tears rolled harder now.
“It would have made so much more sense,” she said. “I’m ready. And your mother … she had so much life left in her. Of course, I asked Him to take me instead of Michael, too. But I guess that wasn’t part of the plan.”
“I guess not,” I said, in a gloomier tone than I probably intended. The suggestion that God ever plans to take our loved ones away has never made sense to me.
Grandma put her right hand on top of mine, so that three of our hands now formed a stack. After a few moments of silence, she began to tap my fingers with hers.
“Well then,” she said, “I suppose we’ll just have to make some new plans.”
When I looked up, she was nodding her encouragement, despite the tears.
“We may not always get to be in charge,” she continued. “But we do have to take charge of what we can.”
Grandma hadn’t given up, despite it all. At a moment when she might well have played the victim, she was playing the hero instead–precisely by encouraging me to do the same. She was finding her own new story. And that, of course, was exactly right.