What do you do when trapped listening to a bad story? Do you let your imagination wander? or take a short nap? Do you close off your mind? or go where the droning voice takes you? We all have coping mechanisms for such an occasion.
But what do you do when your life feels like a bad story? Do you sleep away the years? Do you fixate on meaningless drivel to distract yourself from boredom? Or something more extreme?
Life is like a story. And like a story it can be compelling or dry, engaging or dead, invigorating or draining. We can learn something about what makes for a good life from the elements of a good story. Here are the five elements of a good storyapplied to life:
1) A good life story needs a meaningful point
Just as a story with no point bores us, a life with no point numbs us. We, as a society, used to believe more firmly in the meaning of life. But this idea has come under attack in recent years. As Deep Thought reports in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “The Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is…42!” For most folks living in this post-modern age, even the meaning in life seems meaningless.
But I’m not buying it. This amazing universe—full of stars, planets, black holes, and nebulae—is not a meaningless mash of happen-chance and luck. And neither are you. That’s why we long for stories with meaning. That’s why we continually search for it ourselves. We want a life with a point.
What is the point of your life? How do the things you do day-to-day fit into the point?
But Josh, I make zippers for a living. Every day I go to the factory and press the button on the big machine. How can I have a point in my life? Are you saying I need to quit my job and live in a Brazilian favela to have a meaningful life.
No, that’s not what I am saying (although helping the impoverished in Brazil is not a bad idea). Zipper-makers can live with meaning. I mean, you keep peoples’ barn door closed. But beyond that, why are you working at the factory? to feed your family? to support your community? as an extension of your faith?
We don’t have to quit our job and “find a dream calling” to live life with a point, but we do need to think through how all the aspects of our life work together for a bigger purpose than a paycheck or to fight boredom.
2) A good life story needs a clear character
It is difficult to understand the point of our lives, or how to apply it, if we do not understand ourselves. “Who am I?” comes before “What should I do?” This involves understanding our personality, our talents, and our desires.
And yet, in spite of the many books, tests, and courses on personality, we don’t seem to know ourselves better than before. Why not?
The first problem is dishonesty. I am not talking about lying to your boss or cheating on your taxes. This dishonesty is closer to home. We lie to ourselves.
We are afraid to look clearly at our weaknesses and faults so we just close our eyes and look the other way. We blame others for our mistakes and reject responsibility for who we are. We are scared of ourselves so we lie to ourselves.
This dishonesty gives us an inaccurate perspective of ourselves and our world. We end up staying in a job that doesn’t fit us or dating a guy who isn’t our type because we don’t understand who we really are. We are blind to our true character because we are afraid of our faults.
This blindness is compounded by a second problem: distraction. Not only are we blinded to our faults, we also overlook our strengths. A common cause of this is our infatuation with the strengths of others.
We are so distracted by the character strengths of our neighbors, we don’t see what we have to offer. We allow the gifts of others to blind us to our own.
A clear picture of our character includes both our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and our defects. When we can look boldly into the mirror and see ourselves, then we can begin to live a better story.
3) A good life story needs purposeful conflict
The people we honor and remember are those who faced conflict with courage. And yet, we often live as if the goal of life is to avoid conflict. The smoother and easier the better.
But no one builds a statue for that kind of person. Although I can imagine it. A giant marble lazy-boy recliner with an overweight middle-aged man, beer in one hand and remote in the other. The caption could say, “American Male, successfully avoided every conflict in his life. Born, 1967, Died, 2017 during the series finale of Game of Thrones.”
None of us wants this kind of life. So our life, like any good story, needs conflict.
You won’t need to seek out conflict. If you are pursuing a meaningful “point” for your life, conflict will find you. The challenge is to face the conflict when it finds you. When we recognize that conflict is a part of every good story, we aren’t surprised when it appears and we can fight with more ferocity.
4) A good life story needs character change
Conflict is like a chisel in the hand of a sculptor. It is the catalyst of change and the key to releasing the statue from the stone. And change is what we want.
Or at least we want the results of the change.
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” C. S. Lewis
Change is part of the natural order. If we aren’t changing we aren’t growing. If we aren’t growing we aren’t alive. While change is difficult, it is possible. And it makes for a much more interesting life.
5) A good life story needs a powerful conclusion
Just as every story ends, so the minute hand speeds us towards our conclusion. We don’t get to decide when our life story ends, but we can affect the conclusion.
I don’t want my life to ramble on like an unfocused anecdote. I want my life to drive towards a meaningful conclusion.
This begins with how I view the end. While my life is my own, it does not belong to me. I have it on loan. And I believe one day I will give an account for what I did with it.
For me, this is more than metaphysics, this is reality. I live. I die. I give an account for my life. This clear conclusion gives my life propulsion. I know my time is limited, therefore I want to make the most of the time I have before it is gone.
I chose to live in such a way today that I can stand without regret when my life concludes.
How about you?