H. Wallace Goddard
Co-authored with Barbara Keil
Life is a roller coaster of experiences pelting us with joys, pains, feelings, discoveries and surprises. How do we humans attempt to wrestle this muddle of experiences into something that makes sense? How do we give meaning to the events of our lives?
We create stories. We take all those experiences and we form them into narratives—our own interpretation of what has happened to us. Some stories are overflowing with joy—perhaps the story of how we fell in love with our spouses or the evolution of treasured family traditions. Some stories are packed with pain—perhaps how we were hurt by someone we trusted or a time when someone cheated us.
Our Perspective Determines the Story
Once we create our stories, we file them in our memories. They become the versions of events that we retell to ourselves and others until we consider them to be accurate and truthful representations of our life experiences. We forget that we have based our stories on our own interpretation of our experiences. And we fail to recognize that our interpretations determine both the content and the morals of our stories.
A friend of mine told a story about her father. He endured many challenges in his life. His mother abandoned him when he was two years old. As a result, he was raised in an orphanage. During his adult years he had many health problems. He lost his eyesight for a number of years until an operation was able to restore sight in one eye. He was diagnosed with cancer. His kidneys shut down and he had to undergo dialysis treatments each week. During one hospital stay, he contracted a rare virus that caused a persistent lung infection. Many nights he had to sleep upright in a chair in order to breathe.
And then he was diagnosed with another cancer in the one eye with sight. As he and his family drove home after learning he might again go blind, his discouraged daughter commented, “You just can’t seem to catch a break, can you?”
The next morning her father called her and said to her, “I wanted to let you know, I disagree with your assessment. I married a woman who has always been my best friend and have a family I love. I had a career that gave me opportunities I never imagined I would have. I have great friends. And I have enjoyed the journey every step of the way. I believe I am and always have been a very lucky man.”
While he could have written his life story as one that included a number of bad breaks and continuing challenges, his choice to focus upon the joys of his life caused him to genuinely perceive his life as a rewarding journey that surpassed his expectations. We can choose to see ourselves as victims of life, or we can chose a different theme for our life story such as the growth we have achieved in overcoming challenges, or the tender mercies we have been granted.
It isn’t our circumstances that determine the story we tell ourselves about our life—it’s our perspective.
Our Biases Distort the Story
There is another problem with the stories we create. Once we have written our stories, we typically consider them to be accurate and truthful history. But we forget that we have limited and biased perspectives as the authors of those stories. We place ourselves and our own feelings, needs and intentions at the center of the stories we create. We are woefully unaware of the actual feelings, needs and intentions of the other people who populate our stories—instead we insert our own perceptions and interpretations about them and their motives. Our biases create distortions of the people and circumstances in our stories. We frequently misunderstand and misrepresent the people and events in our lives—and we do it without being aware of it.
I once knew a couple that married in the temple, delighted that their family would be bound together for eternity. It seemed to everyone that they were deeply in love. She told everyone how happy she was.
Years later she announced to her husband that she no longer wanted to be married to him. She told him that as she looked back, she concluded she was never really happy. There hadn’t been any incidences of infidelity or abuse on his part—just the usual irritations and chafing that occurs in marriages. But she decided that she had never been satisfied in the relationship from the beginning. Now that she was “seeing more clearly” she felt she had no other option than leaving the marriage.
Perhaps she was a far better actress than any of us knew and the good relationship that we witnessed for many years wasn’t real. But I strongly suspect it is more likely that she has re-written her life story to excuse her desire to leave the marriage. Many times we will re-write and edit our memories to justify current feelings or behavior. We begin the process of deleting positive memories of family members, friends or fellow ward members from our mind and begin crafting evidence of their offenses, disappointments, and failures. Maybe we even turn them into villains—while we have no way of knowing their real thoughts or intentions, we decide based on our own bias that their offenses were deliberately hurtful or malicious.
What if that woman had edited her life story differently? What if she had gone back and remembered how they fell in love, the joyful times of their marriage and times when they had overcome challenges together? What if she had considered the story of their relationship with themes of compassion, forgiveness and commitment? Perhaps she might have remembered many reasons to stay. Perhaps their marriage might have been saved and even thrived.
Sometimes we get stuck in our stories. We re-live unhappy experiences over and over again. As we re-live those unhappy stories, we re-create and re-experience all the emotions of hurt and anger. We might become even more wounded or outraged. And in that renewed hurt and anger, we will be tempted to refine our stories to further enhance the reasons for our negative judgments. We know in some part of our souls that we must surrender our harsh assessments of the other people in our story. But we refuse. We become addicted to our version of events and our resentments. We justify our harsh stories rather than repent of our hard-heartedness.
God’s Remedy for Faulty Life Stories
All of this may seem like a gloomy assessment of our ability to objectively interpret life. I see it differently. I think God has designed life with lofty purpose and perfect wisdom. He knew that we would make mistakes and be subjected to trials, thus becoming vulnerable to evaluating ourselves and our lives through the lens of negativity. He knew that each of us, wrapped up in our own perceptions, would be hopelessly disconnected from everyone else and tempted towards judging others. Unless we are willing to use the tools He has provided. Consider how God’s mandates helps remedy our misperceptions.
1. He commands that we have faith in Him: “Believe in God; . . . believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.” (Mosiah 4:9). After all, He is the One who uniquely has a “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 98:24). We must always remember how limited our knowledge and understanding are.
When we have faith in Him, we revise any life stories we have created that display a lack of faith in Him and His purposes. We do not tell ourselves that we are a victim of life’s circumstances and cannot be happy. We do not create stories that cause us to believe we cannot change for the better. We refuse to tell ourselves a story in which we have made too many mistakes and are beyond redemption.
And when we truly appreciate our own human limitations and His heavenly wisdom, we stop believing we have privileged access to objectivity about others. We gain humility, which is the great precondition that opens us to compassion towards others in our stories.
2. God repeatedly commands all men everywhere to repent. We must repent in order to grow towards God. When we respond to this commandment, we give up our addiction to stories that continue to fill us with feelings of hopelessness, irritation, hurt and judgment. We stop using our life stories to accuse God or His children.
“There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life—either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes—our own or other people’s—is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Remember Lot’s Wife”, Brigham Young University Devotional, Jan. 13, 2009)
When we respond to the commandment to repent, we give up our addiction to stories that continue to fill us with feelings of hopelessness towards our own situation or judgment towards others. We stop looking backwards and press forward to the path God invites us towards (see Phillipians 3:13-14).
3. God commands that we love each other. He readily acknowledges that our fellow travelers are fallen and flawed. They do things that are undeserving of our love. But we, too, are fallen and flawed. We do not deserve His love based on our actions, yet He grants it unstintingly. If we are to transcend the mortal trap of self-centered and self-serving life stories, we must not use our stories to justify judging and condemning others. We must offer to reconsider our stories with a theme of compassion and charity. We graciously forgive as we are forgiven.
Intriguingly, these recommendations are strikingly parallel to the recommendations of the most respected psychotherapy today, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT invites people to realize that their perceptions are filled with errors and misjudgments and to open themselves to compassionate views of others.
Evaluating Our Own Stories
We may wonder what makes a good story. Is it that our story is truer (more objective and accurate) than other stories? Nope. Only He whose name is Truth has the big picture.
Is it because we convince the people around us that we are accurate authors? Is it public opinion and consensus that decides truth? Nope. We are all deceived. We may rally others in groupthink, but that does not make us right.
I think God has offered a measuring stick by which to assess our developing narratives. In D&C 50:23-24, He is essentially saying: Any story that doesn’t edify—that doesn’t lift your spirits causing you to praise God and love your fellowman—is not of me. Ultimately the life stories you create should enlarge your faith, generate greater efforts to be godly, and enrich your love. Any story that does not do that—any story that complains of life’s circumstances, surrenders to hopelessness, or accuses fellow travelers—is a mortal tragedy rather than a heavenly narrative.
God seems less worried about our accuracy than our charity. Or, said differently, God is far more interested in His kind of accuracy than the human kind of distortion. He wants us to adopt His view which is far more gracious than the usual earthly view. Research has consistently shown that healthy relationships are built on one specific type of bias: on the deliberate choice to privilege positive, loving, and kind perceptions of each other. God’s command to have charity seems to suggest the same thing, namely that we see each through the lens of “gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41-42). This view of people will “greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:42). In other words, we should create narratives that don’t claim we are better than we are or that other people are worse than they are. We see everything with the light of God’s graciousness. We are lifted by hope, warmed by compassion, and renewed by His goodness.
The stories we choose to write about our lives either hold us hostage and make us miserable or move us forward and provide us meaning and purpose.
So think about the story of your life that you are creating. Is it filled with inexpressible awe for a Father who loves us perfectly? Is it punctuated with humble pleading for a renewed spirit and mighty change of heart? Is it packed with appreciation for both the good people and struggling people who have enriched your life? Does it display gratitude for both sought-joys and unexpected challenges that have created personal growth and deeper dependence upon God?
If so, then it’s a great story—one that will stand the test of time and endure into eternity–one that will become a part of His grand story of redemption.
You can find many of Brother Goddard’s past articles by going to the Dr. Wally Archives
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Books by Brother Goddard:
Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage http://www.byubookstore.com/ePOS?store=439&item_number=1%2d934537%2d02%2d0&form=shared3%2fgm%2fdetail%2ehtml&design=439
Between Parent and Child
Finding Joy in Family Life
YouTube videos on the Atonement