aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The power of personal stories

seraphimsigrist had a post about the confessional nature of LJ. I thought about replying over yonder, but it brought to mind a more fully developed thought that would be worth sharing here in full.

I have long pondered the power of our personal stories. We have these powerful experiences -- some good, some bad. They dwell deep within us. And from them comes power. They make us who we are, influence our basic drives and goals, tell us what the world is and whether it can be trusted.

It doesn't matter whether the huge experience that powers your soul is a good one or a bad one. We can go back to it, relive it, whenever we want to -- sometimes even if we don't want to -- and it all comes back. Some people relive moments with God that never fail to comfort them; others have moments of horror they'd give anything to be free of.

And here's the thing: to tell your personal story inevitably decreases its power -- including its power for you/over you. When it is brought up from the depths and made into a coherent narrative, there is an inevitable editing process that makes it a story that can stand alone without the teller from whom it came. Which makes that story -- even if every detail is true -- a work of narrative art; not fiction, but fiction-ish. And the more you tell that story, the more it will seem like it happened to somebody else.

We all know that "confession is good for the soul." That's because admitting the bad things we've done means we're halfway to absolution, where the shame of what we've done (our inner experience of our sins) loses its power over us. We also know that "telling your story" in therapy is part of the healing. The thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night, that stabs you to the heart, that makes you live every day in fear -- has its power lessened by telling it in the right setting, to the right person. Oh, yeah, you can get caught in a narrative loop if you're not willing to let go -- where telling your story over and over is just what we call "pain masturbation" -- but that's another thing. Telling the story of your bad decreases the power of that bad over you -- whether you did it originally, or it was done to you.

But here's what a lot of people don't know. Telling the story of your best moments also decreases their power. Give your testimony of conversion or healing over and over, and it, too, will seem like it happened to someone else. So when you go back to warm your soul at that inner fire, you find the original experience less believable. I have always been very wary of sharing my biggest moments with God in my preaching; oh, they'd make powerful sermon illustrations, but then, in sharing them, they would be less about me, than about this point I'm trying to make in this piece of homiletical craft. I could no longer go back to the secret fire at the base of my heart. I would have given it away.

Now, giving your story away is good. To tell your story at the right time, in the right ears, may help someone who is struggling right now and needs to know your experience of grace, or of power. But it is a kenosis -- an emptying -- for in sharing your story, you are giving up a great deal of its original power to someone else who needs what power can be found in it for him/her/them. It is an act of love, of ministry, to do so -- a Christlike act, indeed.

But that means I share my most powerful experiences only sparingly, usually in one-on-one conversations. Because to broadcast them to all and sundry would be to mine my soul for mere homiletical material, and share it with nobody in particular. It's not quite casting pearls before swine, but you get the idea.

This doesn't mean that the opinions that I share on LJ or in live conversation aren't really what I believe. My head, as well as my heart, presents the Real Me to whoever's paying attention. But I think much of what is missing in Christian conversation and in professional ministry is that we do not take the time to build real relationships with people, to where our words become a real gift from one heart to another; most people I see are just swapping slogans with each other. I can't tell what's real and what's art in their sharing; it worries my soul that I fear they can't, either.

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