Everybody gets stuck. Life can be difficult, painful, and confusing. It's in those confusing seasons of life that we often find ourselves the most stuck, unable to change and move forward with our lives. I hate being stuck.
Like you, I've been stuck a lot. What immediately comes to mind is graduating college with no plan, the first and the second time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, that time my girlfriend broke up with me when I was just weeks away from proposing marriage, discovering a dead body in a lake, waking up one day and realizing I'd somehow become thirty pounds overweight during my twenty something years, and that terrible day when I was left unemployed for the first time in my life with two young sons, a pregnant wife, a mortgage, and a chest full of fear.
I've noticed that my tendency (and the tendency of everyone on the planet) is to solve stuck by doing something. We set new goals, write a to-do list, read a self-help book, and try to get un-stuck. Now, there's some merit to this. We certainly need to take action. But, at least for me, I've found that the problem of stuck runs much deeper than what can be fixed by a new exercise program, a change of scenery, or the latest method for improving my self-esteem. I need something bigger.
A few years ago I read a quote that changed my life. Here it is:
The same impulse that makes us want our books to have a plot makes us want our lives to have a plot. We need to feel that we are getting somewhere, making progress. There is something in us that is not satisfied with a merely psychological explanation of our lives. It doesn't do justice to our conviction that we are on some kind of journey or quest, that there must be some deeper meaning to our lives than whether we feel good about ourselves. Only people who have lost the sense of adventure, mystery, and romance worry about their self-esteem. And at that point what they need is not a good therapist, but a good story. Or more precisely, the central question for us should not be, 'What personality dynamics explain my behavior?' but rather, 'What sort of story am I in?' - William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993
I realized I'd been asking the wrong questions. I'd been asking questions that were too small. When life got hard and I got stuck I tended to ask questions like, "How do I fix this?," "What's wrong with me?", "What do I do now?" Instead I started asking myself, "What sort of story am I in?"
Stories are powerful. Whether we're conscious of it or not, every single one of us believes some kind of a story in order to make sense out of our lives. Human beings are meaning makers. No matter our culture, background, or beliefs, we need to make meaning of our lives and the story of our life only begins to make sense when it's understood under the banner of a bigger story. We need a story that is big enough to make sense out of both the beauty and the brokenness in our lives and in our world. Or, in other words, we need a story that's big enough to get us un-stuck from whatever life throws at us and to keep us moving forward in the plot.
You Need A Better Story
Change and forward movement in our lives isn't merely a matter of trying harder. It's a matter of believing and living more deeply into a big story in which we each have an important role to play.
Your life would actually be a lot better if your life could become less about your life. If you could
see that your life is part of a larger plot than simply "the story of me," then adventure, mystery, and joy would reenter the picture. Most of the stuck-ness in our lives is a product of an over focus on our lives. We spend so much time looking in, when we ought to be looking out and up.
The late Austrian philosopher, Ivan Illich, was once asked about the most revolutionary way to change society. He answered the question this way:
Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step... If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.
-- Ivan Illich, "Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich," Proclamation, Invitation, & Warning, July, 2007
What our larger society needs is the same thing you need: an alternative story. A bigger story. Ditch the small goals, anxious to-do list, and the self-help craze of the month. Instead, get your heart wrapped into a better story and watch what happens.
What sort of story are you in?
For more, check out my new book, The Big Story.
Justin Buzzard lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three sons. He's the author of the new book, The Big Story.