“If you don’t have a scar, you don’t have a story; and if you don’t have a story, you didn’t really leave home.” That’s what I told my nephew, Kevin, who was 8 years old at the time, after he took a scary fall while climbing rocks during a camping trip in Fort Davis, Texas. He fell between two large boulders, skinning both his back and his chest.
What I said seemed to help. Rather than going for sympathy by complaining to everyone about falling on the rocks, he was the courageous hero and kept pulling up his shirt to showing off his wounds. In fact, he was disappointed when it all healed. I think he was hoping for a permanent mark so he could tell his story forever.
Without a story, it’s as if you never left home.
I took many business trips to Tulsa during the 1980s, and I enjoyed them all, but the only one I actually remember is the one with the coolest story - the time I was stranded across the Arkansas River in a scary thunderstorm.
And for all our fun ski trips to Snowmass Colorado during the 1990s, the one that hangs in my memory is the year we stopped in Denver on the way home and I took time to run around Washington Park while Cyndi took a fitness certification test. That run was instrumental in forming my opinions about city parks and public spaces, which eventually led to four years on the Parks and Recreation Commission and twelve years on the City Council. That story from Denver changed me.
Most of my business and vacation trips from before 1986, before I started writing, blend together, because I didn’t capture any stories to distinguish them. That may be the biggest gift I’ve received from writing; I’ve documented my stories.
But not every story has the same value. Donald Miller wrote, “If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet.” And for me, it’s usually the conflict stories that change me. Good-news stories might make me happy, but they leave me unchanged.
Also, I don’t know how to be clever or funny when writing about easy times, perfect weather, or beautiful scenery (which ruins any attempt to describe my trip to San Diego last weekend). Who wants to read about running long and fast with no pain? Not only does it sound unbelievable, in a strange way, it doesn’t even sound desirable. For me, as a writer, good news isn’t funny, and is seldom interesting. (There are exceptions: the Washington Park is one of my best life stories.) Mostly, stories need conflict to be meaningful.
So this past weekend I attended a Storyline Conference in San Diego, led by author Donald Miller. I told everyone that it was a writing conference, but it was really about how to live a meaningful life.
Sure enough, as I sat taking notes during the Saturday afternoon session, I started questioning my own interpretation of my life story. As in, if writing needs conflict to be meaningful, why do I expect my own life to be trouble free? Why am I so surprised to look back at the negative turns in my timeline?
I realized that I grew up expecting to sail through life with all green lights. Why? Because I was a good rule follower and commandment keeper. I called it grace, but it was really karma; as in, what goes around comes around. I thought that since I was a good boy, I should have an easy life.
So when the first big bad news of my life landed on me, I didn’t know what to do about it. The shock of my own vulnerability haunted me for the next thirty years, decades longer than the original incident. And here’s the thing: the actual conflict isn’t what bothered me so much as the idea that God didn’t keep his end of the bargain.
At the conference, I realized that I’d been thinking about conflict - negative turns, personal disasters, grand failures, and epic fails, completely wrong for most of my life. I assumed them to be hurdles to jump and obstacles to overcome, placed in my path to make sure I was paying attention and to throw token trust toward God.
But those stories were bigger than that. They made me who I am.
A life of all green lights might make for faster traveling, but it wouldn’t be interesting. It wouldn’t be meaningful, and it would have nothing to offer anyone else.
And there’s this: while driving in San Diego, I actually looked forward to red lights. That was the only safe time to stop, check my road map, and figure where I was. I needed conflict to find my bearings.
Well, I’m not eight years old, which means I don’t have to go around pulling up my shirt to show off my scars. I can feel them just fine on my own.
I’m learning to do more than feel them; I’m learning to own them, redeem them, and know that I am a different man because of them.
I would have little to offer the men and couples in my ministry if I didn’t have those scars. I wouldn’t have any stories to tell. It would be as if I never left home. It would be a boring, meaningless life.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32