I found myself sitting across from a friend of mine late one Thursday night. We had been going about our own business as usual when we ran into one another in the middle of the college coffee shop. Seeing that she had to read for class, and I needed to do some research for a paper, we decided to keep one another company and share a table.
After spending a half hour intently focused on our work, my friend looked up from hers and tapped the top of my book with her pen. I glanced up and rubbed my eyes.
“What’s up?” I asked, closing my book and setting it down beside me.
“Could I ask you a question?”
“Sure! What of?”
My friend took a deep breath and held it, weighing whether asking me would be productive. Then, having made up her mind, she leaned forward, shut her laptop, and whispered, “It’s about relationship advice.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Oh? Well, I’m not the most well-seasoned individual when it comes to that topic, but I can give it the old college try!”
She laughed and proceeded to tell me about this one guy that she met at college and had gotten to know rather well over the past few years. As she talked about him, I couldn’t help but notice that she seemed to get more animated. Her face brightened. She couldn’t help but smile as she remembered.
After a few minutes, she fell silent and leaned back in her chair. I waited for a moment to see if she was going to ask me anything. Nothing.
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table between us. “So,” I ventured, “it seems as though you’ve made up your mind about him. What would you need my advice on?”
“Well,” she started, “the thing is, even though I have feelings for him, I will be studying away next semester and I don’t know if he’ll be around after that.”
She paused. “I just don’t know if I should let him know that I have feelings for him and ask if he did for me as well. I don’t want to ask because if he didn’t I think that would make the few remaining weeks awkward. And I think that a certainty of a few weeks as good friends is pretty good.”
“But you also want to see whether he has feelings for you as well because pursuing a relationship would be more fulfilling.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, but if it doesn’t work out, I fear that he’ll withdraw. I don’t want to lose him. I just want him in my life, even if these feelings I have go unaddressed. You know?”
“More than you would expect.” I leaned back from the table and folded my arms. “I can give you two pieces of advice. But the thing is, they’re both antithetical to one another, so you have to choose one or the other. Both have perks. Both have risks. But I have lived or am living both. So, no matter which you choose, I get it.”
“Who knows,” I said, “Perhaps you’ll find a third way?”
There are some stories that are told. And then, I think, there are the stories we are meant to live.
For much of my college career, even though my mantra has been Be Here Now, I believe that my actions have told another story upon further reflection.
A story I used to tell myself was that the person that looked back at me in the mirror didn’t matter. Who a person happened to be didn’t matter. It was whether they could produce and be a constructive member of a team that meant something at the end of the day. Where I got that story into my head, I don’t know. Grade school? An unchecked case of theology gone sour? Something from childhood? In any case, I had internalized the narrative that in any account, I should not – I could not – be a burden on others.
Such thinking paralyzed me when it came to community. What if something I did caused another person to stumble or messed up their plans? What if my choices interrupted someone from following the call of God on their life?
But as I spent time living with and among and for others, that story began to get chipped away. Just today, my pastor mentioned that an overarching theme of many Old Testament stories is of a God who prefers to do life with friends and is influenced by them. “If God’s going to Houston,” he remarked, “then, by all means, he’s going to Houston. That’s sovereignty. But the stories of Moses and Abraham and the people of God remind us that if we ask him, he wouldn’t mind passing through Albuquerque.”
God, the Old Testament seems to indicate, does not prefer passive passengers on his road trips. He’ll put up with us, but the trip can get awkward if there’s no conversation the entire way. Plus, if we need a pit stop along the way, we might need to let him know before it’s too late. He wants to engage us in conversation when he’s about to move. There are some stories in which we are meant to be simply observers, the audience, the ones who listen and watch and try to gain something from a bystander perspective. But eventually, the story ends, the cast takes a bow, the curtain falls, and we are left trying to figure out what is next. But our stories are the ones in which we are the actors and must live into them.
Sometimes, oftentimes, we don’t have a single specific narrative we’re supposed to follow. To act responsibly in the time we’ve been given is one thing. To worry about every choice we make might be the butterfly wing flutter to set off a class 5 hurricane elsewhere is another thing entirely.
The funny thing is the fact that whenever we enter into community and engage others, we become burdens and burdened with those we are with. But that’s not a negative thing. Humans are inherently relational. We limit and define ourselves when we come into relationship with the other. I am not you. You are not me. But we find ourselves walking with one another for a time. By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have
By ourselves, in a vacuum, we would have no obligations or duties to others. The trade-off is that we have little, if any, story either. We lose out on meaning by ourselves. We must trade some of our freedoms to be with and for others. We must give some of them up to abide by our storylines too. A mentor of mine once stated that his grandmother advised him to choose his rut carefully because he’s going to be in it for a long time. We give up in committing to one rut, one way of living, one group of people, to live any differently for a time. But that rut gets you somewhere eventually. The story unfolds along that journey. When we relate to others, we allow them to write that story alongside us, too.
I’m reminded of a scene from a play that my university’s theater program is performing. Within the play Into the Woods, the protagonists find themselves confronted by a giantess out for revenge against Jack and demands that they hand over the boy as a sacrifice. In a bid for time, the protagonists sacrifice the narrator – the one who frames their story – as a replacement. He is consequently killed by the giantess soon thereafter. Later, as the characters attempt to process the ramifications of what they’ve done, they conclude that in absence of a previously established guiding narrative, they must now write their own. In a similar manner, I don’t think many of us have that sense of a specific narrative set out before us as much as a general one.
And for once, I think, that’s exciting.
Practically speaking, it means we needn’t worry about those butterfly wing flutter decisions. We have the space, we have the grace to make our own stories, that eventually, hopefully, can glorify God now and forevermore.
For me, it means being free to improvise and take life step by step. It means keeping one eye on the horizon but never fearing it. It means I can Be Here Now – I can write a new story instead of waiting on the sidelines, even though the sidelines seem more certain and secure.
You see, I’ve found someone that I think is helping me write a better story. When she laughs, she brightens my day. When she talks about what she’s passionate about, her face lights up and it’s hard not to get caught up in her animation.
Sometimes, we stay up until the early morning hours, looking up at the stars. In those moments, sharing bits about who we are. We tell our stories. We share them because we know we are all just stories in the end. Where we came from. Who we are. Where we might end up. It’s all a part of a larger story each of us is writing.
The thing is, though, when she tells one of her stories, you can’t help but notice her knack for setting up the scene, the characters, the plot all at once, and in a moment, set them all into motion. It’s why she studies theater, I think. She studies how stories are lived out and lived into because there’s something about the arts which can communicate elements of what it means to be human. All those moments and decisions that may send us off onto the next adventure as well as those that don’t – all of it helps tell us who we are and who we might be.
And, I must confess, I am no exception to this knack of hers. I am grateful that she helped me stop thinking I was supposed to be a member of the audience and to begin living my own story, too.
It’s funny who you meet when you begin to be present and appreciate the people around you. Especially in coffee shops. Particularly over great books.
“So,” I said, leaning back from my friend in the college coffee shop, “what type of story do you think you’re experiencing right now, friend?”
She looked at me for a second with a spark in her eye.
“Which do you want to have?”
When she answered, it made all the difference. But that’s not my story to tell. She’ll have to tell you herself one day if she so chooses.
God only knows what type of hurricane that will bring.