Tragic Life Stories: We all got one.
I used to think that I had one of the best tragic life stories out there (think ‘Shameless’, but with only four kids in my family instead of six–and we didn’t have an Aunt Ginger who overdosed on drugs so we could steal her social security check from).
Then, in all of my broken-ness and misguided-ness, I started becoming interested in self help books and seminars and workshops and conversations and whatever else you do with tragic life stories. Anytime I heard that Glennon Doyle Melton was coming to speak about her “pain as a traveling professor” idea, I signed up. When I saw ‘The Happiness Project’ on sale at Barnes & Noble, I bought it and devoured it within the weekend. I became drawn to GoFund Me’s, to conversations with strangers, to yoga class themes that focused on tragic life stories.
And within all of these seminars and books and fundraisers and conversations, I learned that everyone carries a tragic life story (and in fact, people are probably carrying more than one tragic life story). There are people with tragic life stories, such as myself, who grew up in dysfunctional households. There are people with tragic life stories who have family members who are physically, emotionally, or mentally impaired. There are people with tragic life stories who have some kind of life-threatening illness, some kind of crazy family member who makes holidays difficult, who suffer financial problems, who marry someone they didn’t think they were marrying, who are not able to have children, who have disagreeable parents-in-laws, whose children are a little behind in school, who have weight issues, body image issues, issues going outside (like Shelia in ‘Shameless’). And likely, most of us will carry a variety of these tragic life stories with us (especially since we are now living longer–that gives us more time to pick up more baggage, more wounds, and more tragic life stories).
In the last self help workshop I attended, I actually got up and left the speech because I just couldn’t handle hearing about someone else’s tragic life story. No offense to the speaker–she was doing a great job and she certainly had all the right in the world to share her tragic life story–but I realized that I just need to take a break from existing in tragic life stories.
In our culture, we get this message that we must always be bettering ourselves–we must be looking for that promotion, so we can say we are better in our job–we must be looking for that extra degree, so that we can say we are smarter, we are always looking to buy that better car, that new house, that upgraded significant other. But, as Mark Manson points out, by always striving to have something better and to be something better, what we are ultimately doing is admitting that where we currently are is not good enough–that there is always something broken within us that must always be fixed.
Now, I definitely believe that our tragic life stories are very purposeful–we must all undergo a few of them, because with each tragic life story, we gain wisdom, understanding, empathy, self-knowledge–and these lessons only make our experiences in the world more zesty, invigorating, and meaningful. When we undergo the tragic life story, we must own it in all of its glory, and all of its obscurity (Glennon says, “Discomfort is purposeful: it is there to teach you what you need to know so you can become who you were meant to be. Pain is just a traveling professor. When pain knocks on the door—wise ones breathe deep and say: “Come in. Sit down with me. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know”). And, we can never deny our tragic life stories, because those tragic life stories are part of the tapestry that we create about our lives; while Fiona may move out of “Frank’s” house and try to start a new life with Steve, she can never deny that her experiences growing up and raising her siblings will influence how she sets her future; you would think that, after seeing how lonely Debbie was when ‘Aunt Ginger’ left and steals the kid at the party, if Fiona ever had her own children, she might be more sensitive to providing age-appropriate social interaction.
But, I also think that we must also learn to exist as humans without tragic life stories–because, if we are always living a tragic life story, like Mark Manson suggests, then we will never experience the sheer elation of contentment–we will never be able to fully appreciate the purpose of the tragic life story and we will never be able to accept our tragic life stories as stepping stones to reach us to a higher sense of enlightenment, because we will always be trapped in the notion that there is always something broken about us that we must always be trying to fix.
Church is certainly an instigator of this. Don’t get me wrong–I love going to church and every week, the sermons are so rich in wisdom and there are so many times that I’m on the edge of my seat, eager to hear my ‘call to action’ and how I can make my relationships, my perceptions, my life better in the upcoming week. And, churches have to speak to the masses–sermons must be constructed so that everyone in the audience can get something out of it (otherwise, if you are just preaching about how to fix Johnny’s need to smear baby poop on the wall during nap time, then you are going to lose followers because only one to two people may connect to that). But, so often the messages focus on how to save your marriage, how to resolve your financial difficulties, how to not blow up at your mother in law during holiday dinner, and so rarely do we hear a message about simply celebrating–being joyous that we are alive, to be thankful that we have tragic life stories to enhance our experiences of the world, and to bask in the contentment that maybe at this moment, we don’t have to consider ourselves as in a tragic life story, because we are meant to be appreciating the fact that we made it through, and came out alive, and rather than finding something new to fix, we should be celebrating our accomplishments–it’s like running a marathon or hiking a 14er–I’ve never really met anyone who ‘loves’ being in the midst of the race or the hike, but their reward is always their sense of accomplishment at the end–if we are always finding ourselves in the middle of the race, then we are never allowing ourselves to feel the euphoria once we are through it–and we deserve that.
Oh, we can be certain that a tragic life story will find it’s way back into our lives–perhaps in the same form, or perhaps in a different form–perhaps in the same intensity, perhaps a stronger intensity, or, what we hope, less intense–we are never ‘freed’ from bad stuff happening to us because that is the nature of living, but then again, if nothing bad is happening to us, why deny ourselves the opportunity to pat ourselves on the back and be happy, rather than feeling broken all of the time?