Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
What if the story of your life became a movie? What kind of movie would it be? A thriller? Drama? Adventure? Horror? Comedy? Would it be a dull series of unconnected unimaginative events? A nail-biter? A heart-warming story that inspires moviegoers?
Author Donald Miller began thinking about life as a story when a couple filmmakers approached him about adapting his memoir to a movie. Miller agreed to the proposal, and the adventure began. His book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” documents the experience and what Miller learned about life in the process.
During the development of the script, Miller learned that every life is a story. In his words, “Whether it is a story worth telling and talking about, though, is up to you.”
Screenplays break down into three acts—a beginning, middle, and end. Acts one, two, and three. Why this structure? Because that’s the way we live our lives.
Aristotle’s Poetics lays out the structure for story telling that still influences Hollywood writers today. Here’s what he wrote:
… the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The story of your life begins (early years), the action rises during the second act (middle years) and reaches its climax during the third act (late adulthood). After the final resolution of the story, writers may include a denouement, a word borrowed from the French derived from Latin meaning “untie the knot.” All that’s gone before gels into a final product: The story of your life.
Richard Bach wrote in Illusions, “I gave my life to become the person I am right now. Was it worth it?”
Moses wrote, “We spend our years as a tale that is told” (Psalm 90:9). The word tale derives from a Hebrew word used to describe utterances ranging from a growl to a groan to a sigh. Like a story, Moses implies, life begins and must end. He prays, “So teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12). Numbering our days means making them count.
As we write our story, may it be a delightful story, Moses prays. As authors of our life’s story, we must give some thought to how it unfolds. A screenplay offers the best portrayal of our story because it centers more on action than dialogue and divides itself into scenes, sequences, and acts.
Every new day we live comprises a new sequence of events. Each event includes a beginning, middle and end, as does the sequence in its entirety.
Harold Crick, in the film, “Stranger than Fiction,” learns that an author controls everything in his life from brushing his teeth to his encounter with a love interest. He doesn’t like the idea, but it makes his life very interesting. The author narrates his every move. He’s literally living a story.
Living life as an ongoing story adds an element of self-awareness that turns dull routine into an adventure.
Moses compares a lifetime to a story that is told, not a story that is written. Stories that are told can be changed and embellished at the whim of the storyteller. The story of your life ebbs and flows as you, the storyteller, choose to live it. Moses, therefore, prays that God will teach us to number our days—to live them thoughtfully and make them count for something.
Some allow external forces to dictate the narrative of their life, such as parentage, environment, or “breaks” as they say. They drift without purpose from scene to scene until the final fade out. Such a life as a movie would leave the audience scrambling for the exits.
Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying writes:
Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end, we feel we have no choice or control over them. Of course, we feel bad about this sometimes, we have nightmares and wake up in a sweat wondering: “What am I doing with my life?” But our fears only last until breakfast time; out comes the briefcase, and back we go to where we started.
Others, however, take charge and write their own story. Quoting Richard Bach again, “You are always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past.” As the protagonist in your story, you will meet unexpected challenges over which you have no control. But only you can decide how you cope with the event.
Harold Crick learns his author intends for him to suffer an untimely death in the end. He refuses to accept this destiny and seeks to grab control of the narrative. Harold succeeds and his story takes a turn for the better.
Donald Miller writes, “If story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself may be designed to change us, so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”
Life lived as a story should undergo character transformation. Some take the easy path and go with the flow throughout life. Others embrace the challenges and meet them head on. The hero may not change the world but will probably change herself.
The Apostle Paul advises his readers to “be not fashioned according to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2 ESV).
A story doesn’t really happen unless the main character changes. My all-time favorite movie, The Searchers, centers on the John Wayne character, Ethan, who hates “Injuns” with a passion. He kills them without remorse. The question that looms over every scene of every act is “Will he change before he encounters his niece, Debbie, who’s been raised by Comanches?” At the climactic moment, we witness one of the most heartwarming scenes in filmdom.
The character arc, the change that humans undergo before the dust settles, sets up how the story ends. An old spiritual prayer goes: I know I ain’t what I ought to be; and I know I ain’t what I’m goin’ to be; but I thank God Almighty that I ain’t what I used to be.
The conversation after viewing a film almost always revolves around the ending.
“I hated the ending.”
“They had to give it a Hollywood ending.”
“I didn’t understand the ending.”
“I wish it would have ended differently.”
“That was a great ending!”
The ending is the one thing no one wants revealed to them before seeing a movie. It spoils the entire experience. It’s the spoiler. We sit for two hours wondering how the story will end.
Our entire life story culminates with our ending. Our finale. Some lives end well. Others don’t. Thoughts about death should not consume our golden years, but we should not ignore this inevitability either.
“The thing about death,” Donald Miller writes, “is it reminds you the story we are telling has finality.”
Hopefully, during act two and early act three, the protagonist undergoes a character change—the character arc. A change for the better makes possible a happy ending. An unfinished arc may be a harbinger of an unpleasant finale full of regrets.
It’s sometimes said that playwrights frequently end a tragedy with a funeral and a comedy with a wedding. All life stories end with a funeral. But not all end as tragedies.
A theme that runs through the film The Truman Show shows up on a badge worn by the character Lauren. It reads, “How Will It End?” The show’s followers in the movie and the audience in the theater all wait for the answer to that question. How Will It End?
The Apostle Paul’s story has a magnificent ending. Some might view his demise as a tragedy, but Paul did not. He writes, as he awaits his execution in Rome, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6, 7).
Paul asks Timothy to bring a coat and the instruments of his life’s work. “When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers” (2 Timothy 4:13 NLT). Paul faces the executioner’s axe with peace and dignity; and without fear because, “The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18).
The story of your life doesn’t end at death. It goes on. Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world, including of course Christianity, have told us clearly that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning.
Rinpoche observes that the Buddhist masters know “that if people believe in a life after this one, their whole outlook on life will be different.”
A look beyond this life, like Moses atop Mt. Nebo looking over at the green pastures of the promised land, contributes to a happy ending.
C. S. Lewis ends The Last Battle with words that assure the reader that all the children’s’ adventures in the land of Narnia were only preparation for a greater matter.
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Perhaps the story of your life will have such an ending.