from Ed Bacon
“Stories are the way we make sense of the events of our lives.” Daniel Siegel/Mary Hartzell
The most powerful story I heard this summer was about a 6-year old orphan named Jaden. Jaden’s father had died when Jaden was four and then one morning this summer, Jaden went into his mother’s bedroom to find that she had died unexpectedly in her sleep. “I tried and I tried and I tried to get her awake — I couldn’t,” said Jaden, reported Steve Hartman on CBS Evening News . “Anybody can die, just anybody,” Jaden said with sadness.
Jaden came to live with his aunt, now guardian, Barbara DiCola. As she tucked Jaden into bed recently he told her that he was tired of seeing everyone sad all the time. She told him to sleep on it and come up with a plan. He woke her at 5 the next morning saying he wanted to go into the streets of nearby Savannah, Georgia, and approach people who seemed sad. He would try to put a smile on their face by giving them candy or toys. So equipped with rubber duckys and dinosaurs, he has spent several days in sweltering August humidity bringing smiles to smile-less strangers.
“I’m trying to make people smile,” said Jaden about his successful forays turning strangers’ days around. People erupt in joy that a six-year-old orphan gives them a toy – expecting nothing in return – except a smile. His aunt reports that in addition to receiving an abundance of hugs that the reactions have done wonders for Jaden.
“It’s like sheer joy came out of this child,” said Aunt Barbara. “And the more people that he made smile, the more his light shone.”
The wisdom of Jaden’s mission leads him to add, “But I’m still sad my mom died.”
A few years ago at one of our All Saints funerals I heard a story about a paperweight the deceased had given another All Saints member. It was after both friends had undergone foot surgery to repair damage inflicted by years of wearing high-heel shoes that cramped their toes. The paperweight read, “There are no bad people, just tight shoes.”
“There are no bad people, only tight shoes” became a powerful image for my understanding of the constricting stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. We received these stories from our culture. They became the lenses through which we perceive our world. The tight, narrow, pinching stories by which we live can make us do destructive things to ourselves, to others, and to the planet. Cruel and bigoted religious practices and ideologies come hand in hand with punitive or even paranoid stories about God and others; such stories, repeated throughout a lifetime, can crowd out loving compassion for ourselves and others, replacing it with penalizing judgment.
A punishing angry story about God creates punitive, fearful, and angry people. A loving, forgiving, and inclusive story about God creates loving, forgiving, and inclusive people. A story about God who cares for the least of these forms people in solidarity with those who are marginalized. Hurt people hurt people and healing people heal people. Think of Jaden who without denying his own sadness is allowing the Divine to flow through him to “make glad the city” (Psalm 46:4).
I’ve learned something about how our stories can change. Several years ago a Kennedy School professor taught me that maturing and healing people can reflect on and change the narratives they have inherited. Grace leads us to determine to what degree the stories we live by are “toxic” (destructive) or “generative” (life-giving). The Tibetan nun, Pema Chodron, teaches that one benefit of meditation is taking a break from “the story line that we feel driven to maintain.” Sally Howard has taught me that there is a whole field of mental health concerned focused on constructing for ourselves a “secure narrative.” That is, when we reconstruct the story of our lives in a compassionate and loving environment, we can develop a way of making sense both of our pain and fear as well as our joy and love. Even if we have not received consistent loving attention as a child we still can be loving to others and to ourselves.
The journey of constructing life-giving narratives animates all that we do in spirituality, community, and peace & justice at All Saints. Our New Members classes, our social justice action, as well as all of our formation, education, and small group work pulses with God’s promise to make all things new including the stories we live by. This fall, Sally Howard, Jon Dephouse, and others will facilitate a trial “New Narrative” Lab for those who would like to focus on this part of their lives. Held on a series of Saturday mornings beginning October 10, the “laboratory” nature underscores the experimental nature of the gatherings which will serve as a foundation for participating more effectively in “co-writing” or “co-creating” a more just narrative in the life of our nation and world as well as our vision of new directions for Christianity.
Registration beginning September 6 can take place here or at church.
Meanwhile our friend Jaden is creating his new narrative. He inspires us to acknowledge our own sadness and woundedness as well as the sadness and woundedness in the world. And, to make sense of it all by doing all we can to “make glad the city.”