“Never place a period…”

Writing every day this Lent got me thinking about stories – what they are and how they shape us. Most days the writing was a fun challenge; some days the creation involved wrestling. The hardest for me to write was Day 32:

There was no hope, really. Five years on, she still stuck her finger down her throat and he still “forgot” his anger management classes. They existed together, broken, neither knowing how to heal.

Questions of ethics invited me to wrestle. Here I began a story telling the reader there is no hope, and continued to offer a glimpse into the lives of two stuck and suffering people. It was a story of abuses. I didn’t really believe there was no hope. Was I prepared to put a story out there I did not believe? Was I prepared to put a story out there that was simply about pain and suffering? Are there stories not to tell? If so, what are the criteria? How far does my responsibility to the reader go as a writer?

One thing I have learned working in the mental health field is this: the stories we tell ourselves shape who we are. Because stories shape who we are and who we will become, I believe we have an ethical obligation to be intentional about which stories we tell and how we tell them.

I read a book recently which I responded to with fierce anger. The main characters begin stuck in despair, remain stuck, have opportunities to get unstuck, and return to being stuck. No movement. No growth. No insight into navigating this journey of life. I was angry because I expect from stories something that will enrich or aid my own journey. Something I can digest and that will provide nourishment. It is difficult to journey when fed on despair. Maybe that’s why it can be difficult to listen to someone who is depressed. The satisfying nourishment of hope can be hard to hear or find. I find it easier and more satisfying to counsel someone who is invested in the project of healing and is open to receiving hope. There seems to be something in me, and perhaps all of us, that cannot abide a hopeless story, that knows hope is an essential protein – something we cannot manufacture ourselves, but need to receive through our stories.

There are hard stories in our world, stories of betrayal, of violation, of rampant injustice. Stories of impossible pain and endless suffering. This is a hard world we live in; strife and sorrow our hosts. These stories need to be told in order to affect change. Honesty is the traction for growth. It is the traction for positive change, but not the only thing necessary for it. The book I read was honest in that some people live lives stuck and never get unstuck. Knowing that fact isn’t tremendously helpful. The story ended with a period: no movement. end of story. done. There wasn’t left the possibility of another chapter, of change, of hope. Growth requires being open to the possibility of something different. It requires the humility of the comma¹. It requires acknowledging the story is not truly over, that the author has not written all. I felt able to post my Day 32 story only because I included the suggestion that change might be possible, that they are not at the end of their story. It’s not the case that healing is impossible for them, simply that they do not yet know how to travel there.

I don’t know if there are any stories not to tell. Maybe there are. So far I’ve come to this: the stories worth putting my time and energy and self into are stories with hope. And hope is this: being honest about what is, and trusting that is not all there is.


¹The period/ comma language I borrowed from what Gracie Allen once wrote: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”