“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell…
“…They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.”
~ Fred Buechner, Telling Secrets
“What’s your story?” I think I have said this to my teenagers about a zillion times. (They have a lot of stories, and not necessarily the true kind…) Above is a favorite Fred Buechner quote that has served as personal inspiration for years. These words have helped me as a writer and someone who tries to help others write. Inquiry and examination is not just for writers, though. We all have a story. Many, actually.
I bantered with a friend the other night. She makes thoughtful movies that address life and she’s currently playing with plot lines. We discussed – with passion – different possibilities she is entertaining. “Stop drawing on your experiences,” she kept saying. “How can I?” I argued. “I feel connected to this woman’s experiences. And isn’t that the whole idea, to make it all resonate?” We agreed on that; it’s why we tell stories.
Wisdom lies in the stories of our lives. Perhaps that is why the Bible is made up of stories and parables rather than straightforward commands. There is something left for interpretation, lessons to be absorbed and wrestled with. Sometimes this is the most impactful way to learn. Stories open hearts, and when approached mindfully and honestly, they can change lives, cultivate acceptance, and inspire compassion.
Another great scientist and author (who also happens to be the father and founder of mindfulness in the west), Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote about the importance of acknowledging the whole story. He advises we “put out the welcome mat” for all of life’s experiences and accept where we are in time, place, and experience. He says accepting and being present for all of it is where true happiness lies. We do this through mindfulness, which, through practice, will enhance our perspective and insight. His first of so many classics is called The Full Catastrophe. About it, he wrote the following passage.
“I keep coming back to one line from the movie of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek. Zorba’s young companion turns to him at a certain point and inquires, ‘Zorba, have you ever been married?’ to which Zorba replies (paraphrasing) ‘Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!’
“It was not meant to be a lament, nor does it mean that being married or having children is a catastrophe. Zorba’s response embodies a supreme appreciation for the richness of life and the inevitability of all its dilemmas, sorrows, tragedies and ironies. His way is to ‘dance’ in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat. In doing so, he is never weighed down for long, never ultimately defeated either by the world or by his own considerable folly.
Ever since I first heard it, I have felt that the phrase ‘the full catastrophe’ captures something positive about the human spirit’s ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within it room to grow in strength and wisdom. For me, facing the full catastrophe means finding and coming to terms with what is most human in ourselves. There is not one person on the planet who does not have his or her own version of the full catastrophe.
“Catastrophe here does not mean disaster.
Rather it means the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crises and disaster but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux, that everything we think is permanent is actually only temporary and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything.”
Today’s practice: Think about it. Practice being the observer. What is your story, and how might you delve into it? (Are you willing to take a look, honestly and mindfully, at the beautiful and rich catastrophe of it all?) Here are a few ideas of how you might:
- Watch this video with the brilliant Jon Kabat-Zinn, a headphones-at-home opportunity.
- Consider the Mindfulness and Narrative retreat with the awesome Matt Dewar. Chicago area 4/13-14. (Register here in next couple days, space limited. For a sampling of his teaching click here.)
- Look up Byron Katie and “The Work,” an inquiry into the truth of your own story.
… and definitely watch the below!