“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare, As You Like It
Many writers have spoken of the power of seeing your life as a story. Joseph Campbell has devoted much of his life to exploring how our myths shape us. Paulo Coehlo teaches that each person must discover their own “personal legend.”
I too believe that a vital part of the examined life, the successful life consists of seeing your life as story. Why? I see three distinct benefits. One is rooted in the past, one is anchored in the present, and the third is planted in the future:
1. Seeing your life as story lets you see how far you’ve come, the chapters you’ve already accomplished
2. Seeing your life as story gives you clear direction and focus for what actions you need to be taking now
3. Seeing your life as story gives you hope for the future, that there will be ever greater & more exciting chapters in store for you
To see your life as story, one useful technique is to think of your life as chapters. In each stage of your life there is a major challenge or conflict, and a major way that you need to grow to overcome the challenge, win the conflict, climb the mountain until you reach a new vista of awareness, strength, maturity and opportunity. What’s more, the lesson learned, the growth obtained in one chapter both paves the way for the challenge of the next chapter and equips you to successfully surmount it.
I can see these truths so clearly in my own life. Looking back over the past fifteen years of my life, I see four major chapters that I have lived. Each chapter has had its own challenge & growth, and the close of each chapter has opened the next. Now the chapters have overlap– it’s not that I was in chapter one for exactly four years and three days, and then chapter two started, but they have certainly been distinct passages I have traveled through.
The first chapter, starting about fifteen years ago, is titled “Man Experiences God.” In my early thirties I was still stuck in the foolishness, immaturity and self-centeredness of youth. Although I was outwardly successful as a physician, and though I had been active in church all my life, God was more a theoretical concept than an active reality in my life. I knew quite a lot about God, but I didn’t know God– His love, His acceptance, His presence, His guiding spirit.
Looking back, I see that is why I had made little progress spiritually. I was like a seed that had seen water, knew what water was, but had never actually experienced water, the water of life that a seed must have to start the process of growth. My encounter with God’s love and presence becoming a vital reality in my life was like how Jesus described the wind in John 3– you can’t put a label on it, but its effects are unmistakable.
God’s life-giving presence opened the door for my second chapter, “Man Explores Himself.” During these years I went beyond many of my preconceptions and fixed ideas about who I was. I discovered my passion and talent for writing. I did mentoring and teaching. I did the unthinkable and ran a half marathon. I read dozens of books on spiritual and personal development. I pushed, stretched, and explored myself in a dozen different ways, and in doing so truly became the man God originally envisioned me to be.
As exciting and necessary as that chapter was, it only drove me into my third chapter, “Man Wrestles With God, Himself, & His Path.” Just like Issac of old, coming to grips with who I was and where my path lay was a process & a struggle. Many refer to going through a “mid-life crisis.” Although I never suddenly started wearing gold chains or driving a Harley, exploring who I was forced me to take a hard look at what I had done with my life, where I was, what God wanted for me, and where my future path really lay.
For many people this triggers disillusion, disappointment, and self-destructive behavior. But for some it can be a catalyst for radical positive change. For my friend Richard Iammarino, an honest exploration of who he really was led him to walk away from a secure academic appointment as a pathologist to go back to school to become who God had created him to be– a counselor.
For me, wrestling with God has largely confirmed that I am where God wants me to be, but with a renewed passion & focus on being a teacher & mentor, developing wisdom & loving well. But going through this chapter, and honestly questioning who I was and where my path lay, was an essential chapter to my story that I could not skip.
So now I see myself transitioning into a new chapter, “Man Confidently Walks His Path & Creates His Life.” I am to the point where I know who I am and my big questions about my life are answered, and I am ready to plow ahead with becoming the best me I can be, growing, maturing, creating, serving, loving along the path that God has laid out for me. I turned 48 years old today, and I feel excited and invigorated, looking forward to the years ahead, looking forward to my approaching sixth decade on this planet.
Will there be another chapter in my life beyond this one, one whose title is right now known only to God? I hope so– maybe even several. But seeing this story of my life, stretching from my past, grounded in my present, and reaching into my future, I can live today with confidence, excitement, peace, & joy. Carpe diem!