‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’
Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question.’
Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’
Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’
Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God.’
The Life of Pi. No work of art has influenced me more than this one. Nothing better captures what it means to be human–to have the gift of imagination so that life is more than just a series of events. It is a story.
Stories speak to me, and I so often speak in stories. I love my job because of the stories I am privileged to hear from people I encounter. Part of my job is documenting what I hear, and I have the option of writing it out in paragraphs or filling out a form with check-boxes to communicate data. I choose paragraphs every time. Life is lived in paragraphs, not in numbered lists, choppy sentences, and yes-or-no boxes.
When someone survives something difficult despite seemingly insurmountable odds, you’ll often hear that they “lived to tell the story.” So often, I think it’s the other way around. Perhaps we tell the story to live. The story makes life more bearable from the time we’re infants. Haven’t we all at one point or another zoomed a spoonful of rice cereal toward a baby’s mouth while vocally imitating some form of modern transportation? No, baby, it’s not goo on a spoon–it’s magical cargo on an airplane. It will make you big and strong just like your daddy, and when you take this bite, you will be celebrated like an Olympic champion. Babies fall for it, and they almost have to if they’re going to ever learn to eat. Then a proud mother takes a picture of a messy face and posts it on Facebook with a caption like “My little man loving his first big-boy meal!” Can you imagine if the caption said “My son, feeling indifferent after ingesting nearly-nutritionless goo on a spoon.” What baby would eat it if it’s just goo on a spoon? Airplane noises and choo-choo trains are crucial for early childhood development (how did babies survive before we had these sounds to emulate?!). The better story wins.
The better story continues to win in later childhood. The story about Santa and reindeer delivering toys on Christmas Eve is MUCH more palatable than the fact that mom and dad stayed up till 3 AM putting that damn dollhouse together and that mom stormed off to bed crying after dad said “Do you really need that?” when she reached for the last of Santa’s cookies. The story about the tooth fairy leaving money for your pearly whites is much more satisfying than the fact that mom stubbed her toe when carrying the nasty tooth out of your dark bedroom, subsequently dropping the tooth, which was then eaten off the floor by the dog. Stories of Santa and the tooth fairy do not survive childhood, simply because your parents stop telling them. The stories they continued to tell likely became the foundations for your own life stories. My parents told me the story of Jesus, and this story became the theme of my life and kept me afloat when stormy waters threatened to pull me under.
Childhood was painful for me. I needed the stories. I told the stories to survive. Real, devastating events beat me down over and over, but my imagination was a life preserver. My faith allowed me to catch my breath between waves. My father’s absence was a blessing, because it enabled me to know God as Abba and depend on His provision. Losing our house and our car and eating Ramen noodles for supper was a good thing, because God taught us that material things don’t matter–our treasure is to be in His presence for eternity. Being sexually abused for years by children’s ministry volunteers at church gave me such wonderful opportunities for ministry–my mess became my message, and I helped other struggling young women with my testimony of God’s faithfulness–I never walked alone. The better story.
How screwed up is that? I didn’t have a dad during crucial childhood years, and my faith didn’t change that. No matter how I tell the story, the facts remain–there was no intimidating man to answer the door when boys picked me up for formal dances. There was no stern voice telling me “If you think you’re leaving the house in that shirt, you’d better think again.” There was no one to share in provision for my family so that my mom could quit her second job cleaning houses and buy groceries. Abba-father-God didn’t do that. The child led to dark supply closets by lusting people she trusts really DOES walk alone. God was not there; the mess can only ever be camouflaged, not cleaned up, and any peace my shared experience gave to others was only because I helped them accept a story for themselves that was more bearable than reality. Time has healed all of these wounds for me, and from a safe distance I am ready to say that God was not there. The stories of His presence and provision through it all kept me alive, but He was never there. It’s just goo on a spoon. Santa isn’t real. My childhood was a tragedy. I’ve never once in my life experienced God in a tangible way. The real story kind of sucks. Isn’t the better one much more appealing? Doesn’t this one make you a little uncomfortable? Is life really this hopeless? Is suffering so meaningless?
But wait–reconsider. Most parents love their kids so much that they will make complete fools of themselves to teach their kids to eat goo on a spoon. And maybe mom and dad still laugh about the time they stayed up till 3 AM putting that damn dollhouse together with those instructions written in some country where English is not the first (or even the second) language. And the dog that ate the tooth probably pooped it out the next day, and it might even sit in a box on mom’s dresser as a great conversation piece and a precious reminder of her children’s younger days.
My absent father is in my life again because he had the personal strength to get his life together and because I had the grace to forgive him. And I rose up out of the poverty I knew in childhood because I worked hard and wanted a different life for my kids than the one I had. I survived abuse and became a fully-functioning adult because I am just that resilient, and I wouldn’t appreciate the safety of my husbands arms as much as I do if I hadn’t known danger and exploitation.
I have spent my life replacing the real story with a God-story, because I thought the real story wasn’t good enough. When doubt came in and killed off the main character of my life, I wasn’t sure what I had left. Little by little, I’m rewriting the whole thing without God–and I think it might actually be the better story. When I get out of survival mode and let go of the “better story” my imagination wrote of God’s presence in my life, I begin to see the beauty of goo on a spoon.