How many stories does a life have? I would like to suggest the following as the two possible correct answers:
First, a very good answer is ZERO. Nada. Wala. We interact with the universe in near infinite ways in an approximately infinite number of moments in a span of time that connects eternities. Things happen near us, far from us, around us, to us, through us, inside of us, and (in some sense) because of us. There are people, but no cast of characters. There are events, but no theming or plot. Pretty much all causation and motivations are tentative at best, and meaning is pretty arbitrary. No stories exist of themselves.
Second, a very good answer is “As Many as We Choose to Make.” To make a story from one’s life, one takes one short period of time, or a series of points in our lives, remove the vast majority of things associated with what was going on around, ascribe motivations, theming, causal relations, and relevant charactors, ultimately ending up with a plot. The end result is a story, and that story will typically “mean something.”
One of the most important stories I made from my life was when I was pretty young— when my first baby tooth fell out.
“I don’t remember how my first baby tooth fell out or even which one it was. It was certainly one of the ones in front. I am sure it wiggled a little and then wiggled a lot, and finally came out. Some of my baby teeth were helped with a string. Some just fell out as I was eating. I have no memories of these details. But I do remember a scene where I was in the living room of our farmhouse showing my tooth to my dad. I think my mom was there as well—- standing to the left of my dad. He said, “Bob.” I think it was Bob. My mom would say Bobby or Robby, but I think my dad always called me Bob. Anyway, “Bob, you put that tooth under your pillow tonight, and the Tooth Fairy will come and exchange that tooth for a quarter.”
Back around 1970 a quarter was great. I did not receive an allowance at that time, so I had to ask for anything I wanted at the Ivory Story down the road from my home. A quarter went quite a ways in the candy section, and I could choose how it was used. That was pretty exciting.
But something wasn’t right. Fairies are like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. Even at that age I found this suspicious. Fairies did not sound real. Where we lived we had fireflies that would flash lights as they would seemingly float in the night air. But they were clearly bugs… not fairies. I had to ask something.
“Uh dad,” I queried, “is that really true? You know, fairies and all?”
I seem to remember my dad looking over at my mom for a second, and then saying, “Well no, not really. It is just a game we play… for fun.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.” I responded. That seemed like a good answer. That night I put my tooth under my pillow and I was so surprised in the morning to find the tooth gone and replaced by a quarter. I was not surprised because of the magic of the Tooth Fairy. Rather, I was amazed that my dad was able to make the switch without waking me up.
Actually, it took until my fourth or fifth tooth before I found out how he did it.
This is a story— it has plot, theming, characters. It includes relevant parts of my motivation and thoughts. Perhaps most importantly, it has meaning.
This story is one of the most important stories of my life to me. To a large extent, this story guided me to who I am today.
Actually, the story has two meanings… but those two meanings work together, rather than in conflict with each other.
The Lesser Important Meaning. There is nuance in this world. Many people see the world in black and white—- or good and evil. But there are things in between. One could believe in the Tooth Fairy and act according to that belief. One could also not believe in the Tooth Fairy and act according to that lack of belief. But one could also not believe in the Tooth Fairy while acting AS IF it did. The same thing with Santa Claus. My parents never pretended that Santa was REAL. However, Santa was part of the GAME and TRADITION of Christmas. Honesty and rationality doesn’t have to crush the whimsical. I can hunt for easter eggs left by the Easter Bunny while still knowing that my parents had hidden those eggs themselves (and my sister and I helping color them the day before). This is not necessarily a life-changing principle, but I am so thankful that my story had that meaning in it.
The Greater Important Meaning. My parents believed that it was important to be honest with me. They might explain things in simple terms so that I, at whatever age I was, could understand, but they would not lie to me. That was a great gift to me and helped me to grow up as a man of faith. Why? I knew what my parents believed about fairies, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. They were fun traditions that did not correspond to the real world. For my parents, however, they told me that God was real, Jesus was real, and their faith in Christ was vital in their lives. I knew this was true for them… because they told me. If it wasn’t, they would not have told me it was.
Over the years, my parents told me lots and lots of things. Some over time I came to the conclusion was not true. However, it was clear to me that my parents did not lie to me… they told me because they believed it to be true. I am thankful for that. I wonder what it is like to have been raised by parents who would say “God is real, and one should go to church” while also saying, “Santa is real and will only give you a gift if you have been good all year.” The dishonesty of one would seem to me to lead to distrust about the other. I could be wrong… but I have always tried to be honest with my children. I think that was the right thing. I also tried to not let that honesty destroy whimsy.
Or maybe I did destroy the whimsy. I never did dress up as Santa like my father did (my build would make a much more believable Santa than he). I am not sure. Perhaps my children have created their own stories that put me in a much different light. That is fair.
Stories are created… even our own stories.
<I would describe this as my first important life story. There were earlier stories. I remember when I was 4 years old, I was at my friend’s birthday party and I cheated at “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” I felt guilty about that… until many years later when I realized that I certainly had not fooled anyone (not at age four).>