Storyline: A Life of Meaning, 2/23/13-2/24/13

This past weekend, I attended the Storyline conference at the beautiful Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Situated on the cliffs above the beach, Pacific Ocean(as you can see from the picture on the right) the university is rather picturesque, no pun intended. Haha.

Anyways, the Storyline conference was hosted by the school, but is the project of Donald Miller, who wrote Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. The process of writing the latter book was the genesis of the idea for the Storyline Conference. In the book, Miller argues that the same things that would make for a boring or meaningless story also make for a meaningless life. A friend recommended the book to me a couple of years ago in the middle of my divorce. It changed I made many decisions; often, I would prioritize comfort and ease, instead of choosing the more meaningful and adventurous choice. It has led to some unforgettable memories, and it has changed the focus of my work as an educator (I am now drastically more concerned than I already was before that my students lead meaningful lives, whatever they are and wherever they lead, then become a model student or attend a 4 year university).

The conference is an extension of the book, and an exploration of how we can each live a more meaningful life. In essence, the book was the theory, the conference the application of that theory. There were a host of guest-speakers at the conference, including Tom Shadyac, Bob Goff, Al Andrews, Mike Foster, and Caitlyn Crosby. Each one of them shared their story, in a conversational interview with Miller, who did the bulk of the speaking during the two days. Several things stood out to me and while it is still clear that I am processing this information, I will try to summarize and group them together, as follows:

1. The basic pattern of a story is that a character wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Great stories and lives are crystal clear. It is obvious what the character wants, and what conflicts have to be overcome to get it. There are many things that we as humans desire, but which would make terrible stories. Saving up for a car is not a great story. Neither is buying a TV and sitting in front of it everyday. So, there is the added element, between a basic story and a great story, which is meaning; what makes a life meaningful?

2. Great stories, meaningful stories, have two components: The lead character saves many lives and they are transformed in the process. Our stories should be about saving lives. And we should be willing to be transformed in the living of our stories. Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.” Finding a redemptive attitude toward personal suffering is part of what makes for a meaningful life. We cannot allow our suffering to burden us and to weigh us down, we must find the good in it. We must figure out how to use our suffering to help others.

Personally, I know that my divorce changed a lot in me. Some days it was extremely difficult to get out of bed at all, or care about shaving, or worry about eating. Food? Who needs food when my life is falling apart? But, as I dealt with that pain and as I emerged from the darkness and into the light, I was able to share that pain with others. Sharing openly about the pain of my divorce, I was able to counsel someone who had lost a loved one, and who thought that the pain was unbearable and would never end. I was able to teach that person that light was still in the world, and that things would eventually improve. And that is just one instance in which the redemptive view that I have has allowed me to help others, to encourage them, and to support them.

3. Saving lives is a broad phrase. While it does mean to build wells for the thirsty and to feed the hungry, it also means to speak words of love to the depressed and down-trodden, and as the Book of Acts puts it, to “visit widows and orphans in their time of need.” To visit them, to love them; that saves lives. In the process of caring more about others than myself, I am transformed, bit by bit, into someone that sees a wide brotherhood of man, who are all my neighbor, and who all deserve dignity, love, community, and the necessities of life.

Miller compared a meaningful life to Campbell’s hero’s journey, in which a hero embarks on a quest to save others, often at the cost of him or herself. In a very real sense, to lead a meaningful life is to live a life of action, of hope, and of love, instead of living a life of fear, judgement, and isolation.

I am brimming with ideas on where to go from here, and look forward to figuring some of them out. As I process more, I will write more in addition to everything else I want to share here.

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