The Plot of Your Life
By Audrey Stallsmith
“It makes a better story.” I’ve heard many justifications for the suffering most of us experience off and on throughout our lives, but that one definitely is the oddest!
We all know that conflict is required for good fiction. In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller holds that it is required to make a good life too.
“We realize that great stories are told in conflict,” he points out, “but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller.”
Of course, all authors--even God--have to have to have a good reason for putting their characters through hell, or those authors will come off as sadistic. According to Miller, “If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.”
There’s only one way that character transformation happens in fiction. As Miller writes, “I knew a character had to face his greatest fears. That’s the stuff of a good story. . .” His greatest fear was having to face the father he’d never met and never particularly wanted to meet.
Most of us are content to get such drama from novels and movies and would just as soon exclude it from real life. That is why, as Miller notes, “Characters don’t usually choose to move. They have to be forced.” Forced by their author as, presumably, we have to be forced by God--if our mothers don’t get there first!
In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of her mother, “At every turn, she made me do exactly what I dreaded most.” That is true of a great many female parents, including my own, who decided that this introvert should take over the children’s missionary service at church and a local judge of elections position because both “would be good for me.” Granted, they proved to be so eventually, but I definitely wasn’t convinced of that at the time. I also had a strong suspicion that my mother just wanted to get out of those jobs herself!
They did teach me, however, that we can survive even our most public flubs, and that nobody but the flubber is likely to remember them for long. Our worrying about what other people think of us generally is a waste of time since, as Gilbert puts it with brutal candor, “nobody was ever thinking about you anyway.”
No, we introverts don’t deal well with any of the twists that make a good plot, especially when they involve drastic changes such as my sister and her adolescent daughter moving in with us after her marriage broke up. Having to share a small house and single bathroom with two more people provided conflict enough, even before my sister went out to lunch with someone she’d met on the Internet and hadn’t returned by mid-afternoon.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, my believe-the-best-of-everybody mother had never drilled fear of strangers into us. In fact, I’d even had an ex-con pen pal visit me once with no harm ensuing. So none of us had paid much attention to my sister’s lunch date.
However, even the mother who’d once let two of her teenagers go off on an extended bike trip alone got worried when she couldn’t reach my sister on her cell phone. And then we received a call from my niece’s school bus driver saying that nobody was at the bus stop to pick her up.
On the way to get her, I debated in a befuddled sort of way about how you tell a young teenager that her mother may have disappeared. I came up with a lame, “They could just have lost track of time,” which ultimately proved to be true, but probably didn’t sound too convincing to my niece at the time I was saying it. Instead, I felt like asking God, Is it really necessary for all of us to end up on an episode of Dateline to make a good story?
One of my greatest fears is of irrationality. If God really does force us to confront those greatest fears, that could explain how I’ve ended up working for a woman with dementia. It might just be His way of developing her character, though, since she has to patiently listen to me repeat the same instructions over and over ad nauseam.
Her often blank affect and minimal conversation make it hard to guess what she’s thinking, but I always suspect it’s something along the lines of, If that girl keeps sounding like a broken record, I’m going to clobber her with my walker! (For those of you too young to be familiar with LPs-- long-playing vinyl records--I should explain that the record player’s needle sticking in one place causes the music to repeat itself in a highly annoying way until you move that needle.)
Most of us wouldn’t consider my patient’s fate a happy ending to the story of her Christian life, but we have to remember that she actually hasn’t reached the ending yet. That will come in heaven where her health will be restored--and where I hope she’ll forgive me for all those “vain repetitions.”
Although Miller’s theory is an interesting one, after thinking it over, I found I couldn't entirely agree with it. As I’ve stated in previous articles, I believe in free will rather than predestination. So I also believe that most of the bad things which happen to us either are random or caused by our own folly. There might be occasional exceptions to the rule, just as miracles are more positive exceptions to the rule, but they would be exceptions. So, no, I don’t think such conflict is God’s way of making our plots more interesting.
We authors know that characters frequently refuse to cooperate with proscribed plot lines anyway and veer off onto other paths instead. But, if we follow our protagonists where they need to go, they will experience transformations. Provided, of course, that they voluntarily have chosen to fight their weaknesses rather than running from them.
Scripture tells us that God allows His characters their freedom too. He accompanies us on our journeys, but doesn’t force us onto particular paths, only giving guidance when we request it.
If we allow Him to do so, however, He--like a good Author--can use whatever trials we encounter to make us better people. After all, the Creator who constructed a world from chaos should have no problem constructing plots from the same.