I’m not a good story-teller. There, I’ve said it. And no, I offer no snappy anecdote to explain myself or memorable examples to prove my point. Perhaps, it’s only a mild inconvenience in this world of Marvel movies, Netflix hits, and trending TikToks. But sometimes, I do feel the gravity of my inability, the cost of my condition…
Stories are the social currency in every sphere I’ve known. Great punchlines come after an elaborate set-up. You’re either rude or socially oblivious to interrupt a captivating story! In my manual labour days, crude sharing would bring the lads together during smoko. Often at church, white, Aussie males have mastered the art of story-telling, unpacking doctrine into inspiring testimonies of their faithfulness. In university, I was taught to tell a story for my introductions: imagery could make abstract concepts accessible.
So of course, stories are powerful! They establish identities, and they invite others to experience what lies beyond themselves. And to be clear, I’m not here to write a post-colonial, feminist critique on preaching practices. Nor am I going full ‘post-modern’ to say stories, histories, metanarratives are never real. And yet, there’s resistance within me. As someone who tells bad stories within a world that celebrates good ones, why do I not desire to better myself? Sometimes, I invest in social currency: I try to speak with a tone and confidence matching the good story-tellers around me. But the dividends make me uneasy: why do others believe me more than I believe myself? Why is it easier to fool anyone other than myself?
Perhaps, I’m just a wounded listener. In both the trivial and the tragic, I’ve witnessed the cost of good story-telling. It is all too tempting to abuse stories of one’s life, and so turn chaotic complexity into thematic simplicity. Or put simply, to make the world and people appear smaller than they are. Now I have deep respect for friends and acquaintances who have lived through hardships beyond what I could ever imagine. For many, I admire their resilience and the maturity they’ve arrived at. For others, I respect their strength, but sometimes lament the type of confidence and surety they grasp with an iron fist: “No, no, I was young and naive before. But now I understand, the world is really like… This is who I really am…” It would be cruel and unfair to give examples (and I know all too well that my judgements are not always right), but I maintain the distinction between tested maturity and toxic confidence.
It is the cement in our eyes. When we no longer want to shed both tears of joy and sorrow upon an uncertain world, we resort to confidence to calcify our tender eyes. With self-developed cataracts, we then see apparent structures of reality, internalising unchallengeable convictions:
“Homeless people are lazy; I work a hard 40+ hour week and don’t complain. Society only serves those who help themselves.” #antiantiwork
“All religion is f*cked. The ‘god-of-the-gaps’ is no longer needed thanks to science and technology.” #brandnewtatheism
“Conservative Christianity is what every human needs. I lived a life of freedom and consumerism; it did not satisfy. But conservative, hierarchical structure ordained by God is the home we all long for.” #angelsonlyhaverightwings
Whether true or false, we begin to see the world more clearly, with more predictability, and have more authority in our own voice. We start to associate only with those who see the same as us. We consume books and podcasts, gaining fluency in pre-packaged themes and motifs in order to craft similar ones for ourselves. We offer unsolicited advice to those hurting, because we think we know what should be next for them. We become far less willing for others to interrupt our own stories and testimonies. What we believe of the world becomes absolute. As so we are no longer surprised by how our own story and others’ unfold. After all, it just makes sense!
As for a personal example of cement-filled eyes: I came to university with a heart for logic and truth, or so I believed of myself. A science degree, majoring in physics, with the hope of doing honours and further research in the hard sciences. Even when I added an arts degree to my studies, I enrolled in courses like “Introduction to Logic” and “Critical Thinking”. But my worldview and relationship with logic flipped in third year. Not because I became a Christian earlier – if anything, back then I believed in the arguments of ‘the historicity of the bible’ common in evangelical circles, seeing it as akin to the ‘scientific method’. But my eyes changed because of the whirlwind that is life, being blindsided by my flaws. My father passed away at the start of that year; I relied heavily on a relationship for emotional support, a burden no one should/could carry by themselves; and I couldn’t categorize my own feelings into the black-and-white labels I once relied on. I then studied courses like “Existentialism”, challenged by claims of the ‘death of morality or metaphysics’ and of Nietzsche’s, Camus’ and others’ notions of nihilism. And I found strange comfort knowing that Western, Enlightenment thought was built on the lies of Aristotle/Descartes/whoever.
I had bought into an alternative type of critical thinking, seeing myself as better than those still entrenched in the failed project of modernity. But on the emotional level, I felt the limits of my prior logical mind, and in anger and shame, I looked down on anyone who reminded me of my past self, those associating with the hard sciences or operating with a well–defined understanding of reason. “Anyone can follow a formula: whether a quadratic equation or analytic solutions for partial differential equations, there’s no real thought involved. Life and reason should be mysterious, undefined, and utterly complex.” A poetic irony – I structured my world by rejecting all structures, poorly translating philosophy into a personal worship of instability.
When our eyes are so hardened, hope becomes an illusion. For whatever lies beyond the horizon becomes predetermined in our concrete sight. We fixate on past lessons and ‘morals-of-the-story’ at the expense of our future growth, never willing to unlearn. As the cliche goes, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. We never welcome strangers – people, events, circumstances – on their own terms, instead always speaking over them. And so in my own ‘post-logic’, ‘post-reason’ years, I would desire hope and question what it means to move forward, yet I would be so unwilling to believe in structures and shared languages, always sceptical of the performances I would see in church, society and even academia. “Protestantism was built on a lie. Martin Luther’s a monster.” “Community is a poor substitute for authentic individuality.” “Full-time work is a compromise into life-long mediocrity.” So I would run in circles, hoping I could move forward without direction, to build without structure: constantly wrestling with church culture and history, never committing to a career, and nurturing reflective sorrow at the expense of radiant joy.
In some sense – as this overly simplified story goes – my eyes were only tender again after last year, after struggling with depression and what I thought was anxiety (but turned out to be asthma). There are many factors that affect mental health, and I acknowledge that the journey of others may be vastly different to mine. But for me, depression was humbling and terrifying. I never thought I could lack so much motivation and executive function. The brain-fog made me so anxious about my memory: I would forget the names of people I knew well. And in such a blinding, dark valley, my worship of instability only made things worse. And so, with a touch of irony, what I once thought was the problem would then in part be the solution. It was structure – my very ‘enemy’ – that carried me through the valley. While not ‘cures’, they were nonetheless ‘vehicles’ carrying my otherwise defeated soul: submitting and humbly receiving within community, prioritizing regular routine, trusting that even imperfect languages and sentiments could produce good things.
How ironic, that in blinding depression I began to see what my concrete eyes had failed to recognise! History could be more than just an endless cycle of nihilism. People passionate and gifted in logic and traditional forms of critical thinking do have valuable insights and contributions. The church’s focus on the Great Commission was not merely contemporary colonialism under the pretence of love and piety. God was not a god of destruction, but the God of Upbuilding. Yes, there are still problems in history society ignores, still aspects of who I am that fail to understand. But progression, stability, practicality, growth, meaningful change – all these things were still possible, could still be warmly welcomed within my vision, and were not just phantoms and empty buzzwords I once rejected.
Am I hypocritical to use my own crafted story to justify my problem with overconfident story-tellers? Am I projecting my own insecurities in an attempt to make the world more the way I want it? (Well, is that not what every motivational speaker and writer does!) And maybe, this story’s not relatable to my audience at all. (Well, I did start by saying I was a bad story-teller!) But I maintain my challenge here: to choose tender sight over concrete eyes. May it be a comfort to those in need of hope, and a challenge to those entrenched in hubris. That it is beautiful albeit difficult to welcome the world in its uncertainty, and tragic yet easy to be so self-sure, self-sufficient, self-seeing…
This blog is titled ‘The Journey of Becoming’. And hopefully, from a place of love for others (and not just obligation as a guest poster!), that too is my desire for a world that celebrates good and perfect stories. It is one thing to see a story at its completion and marvel at its beauty. It is another to see in media res – to see the story unfold before your eyes, to live out its journey of becoming. So let us live out our convictions, foster stability, hold identities that enable us to function and flourish in a busy, uncertain world. But let us still allow our own stories to be interrupted. To still be a child in a world of pretending adults. Indeed, my greatest desire would be for all to see God on the horizon, and to welcome in child-like faith the hope that is promised. But for better or worse, this post falls short as a form of proselytizing propaganda. As a second, equal desire, may we all have eyes that remain tender, that cry in both joy and sorrow, that welcome others on their own terms, that see beyond any cement structures towards whatever warmth and light lies beyond its horizon:
“Remember not the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.”