About the Author
John Eldredge is an author, a counselor, and a teacher. He is also president of Ransomed Heart, a ministry devoted to helping people discover the heart of God, recovering their own hearts in God’s love, and learning to live in God’s Kingdom. He lives near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From Epic, copyright © 2004 by John Eldredge. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means-electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other-except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
"I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?"
-J. R . R . Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
It's been quite a journey for Frodo and Sam when the little gardener wonders this. Ever since they left home they've encountered more wonders and more dangers than they could have possibly imagined. The battle on Weathertop. The flight to the ford. The beauty of Rivendell. The dark mines of Moria, where they lost their beloved Gandalf. Their fellowship has fallen apart; their friends are now far away on another part of the journey. Into the shadow of Mordor they've come, two little hobbits and their cooking gear on a journey to save the world. It's at this point Sam says, "I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?" Sam could not have asked a better question.
He assumes that there is a story; there is something larger going on. He also assumes that they have somehow tumbled into it, been swept up into it. What sort of tale have I fallen into? is a question that would help us all a great deal if we wondered it for ourselves.
It just might be the most important question we ever ask.
Life Is a Story
Life, you'll notice, is a story.
Life doesn't come to us like a math problem. It comes to us the way that a story does, scene by scene. You wake up. What will happen next? You don't get to know-you have to enter in, take the journey as it comes. The sun might be shining. There might be a tornado outside. Your friends might call and invite you to go sailing. You might lose your job.
Life unfolds like a drama. Doesn't it? Each day has a beginning and an end. There are all sorts of characters, all sorts of settings. A year goes by like a chapter from a novel. Sometimes it seems like a tragedy. Sometimes like a comedy. Most of it feels like a soap opera. Whatever happens, it's a story through and through.
"All of life is a story," Madeleine L'Engle reminds us. This is helpful to know. When it comes to figuring out this life you're living, you'd do well to know the rest of the story.
You come home one night to find that your car has been totaled. Now, all you know is that you loaned it for a couple of hours to a friend or your teenage daughter, and now here it is, all smashed up. Isn't the first thing out of your mouth, "What happened?" In other words, "Tell me the story."
Somebody has some explaining to do, and that can be done only in hearing the tale they have to tell. Careful now-you might jump to the wrong conclusion. Doesn't it make a difference to know that she wasn't speeding, that in fact the other car ran a red light? It changes the way you feel about the whole thing. Thank God, she's all right.
Truth be told, you need to know the rest of the story if you want to understand just about anything in life. Jokes are like that. There's nothing to them at all if you walk in on the punch line. "Then she said, 'That's not my dog!'" Everyone else is in stitches. What is so dang funny? I think I missed something. Love affairs, layoffs, the collapse of empires, your child's day at school-none of it makes sense without a story.
Story Is How We Figure Things Out
Bring two people together, and they will soon be telling stories. A child on her grandmother's lap. Two men in a fishing boat. Strangers stuck another hour in an airport. Simply run into a friend. What do you want to know? "How was your weekend?" "Fine" is not a good answer. It's just not satisfying. You heard something about a mariachi band, a fifth of tequila, and a cat. And you want to know more about that story.
Look at our fixation with the news. Every morning and every evening, in every part of the globe, billions of people read a paper or tune in to the news. Why? Because we humans have this craving for meaning-for the rest of the story. We need to know what's going on.
Our boys are ambushed somewhere in Asia. What's happening over there? A virus is rampaging on the Internet. What do we need to do to protect ourselves? Somehow we don't feel as lost if we know what's going on around us. We want to feel oriented to our world. When we turn on the news, we are tuning in to a world of stories. Not just facts-stories. Story is the language of the heart.
After all, what's the world's favorite way to spend a Friday night? With a story-a book, a favorite show, a movie. Isn't it true? Good grief! There's a video store on every corner now. They've taken the place of neighborhood churches.
It goes far deeper than entertainment, by the way. Stories nourish us. They provide a kind of food that the soul craves. "Stories are equipment for living," says Hollywood screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. He believes that we go to the movies because we hope to find in someone else's story something that will help us understand our own. We go "to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality." Stories shed light on our lives.
We might know that life is a journey, but through Frodo's eyes, we see what that journey will require. We might know that courage is a virtue, but having watched Maximus in Gladiator or Jo March in Little Women, we find ourselves longing to be courageous. We learn all of our most important lessons through story, and story deepens all of our most important lessons. As Daniel Taylor has written, "Our stories tell us who we are, why we are here, and what we are to do. They give us our best answers to all of life's big questions, and to most of the small ones as well."
This is why, if you want to get to know someone, you need to know their story. Their life is a story. It, too, has a past and a future. It, too, unfolds in a series of scenes over the course of time. Why is Grandfather so silent? Why does he drink too much? Well, let me tell you. There was a terrible battle in World War II, in the South Pacific, on an island called Okinawa. Tens of thousands of American men died or were wounded there; some of them were your grandfather's best friends. He was there, too, and saw things he has never been able to forget.
"But in order to make you understand," explained novelist Virginia Woolf, "to give you my life, I must tell you a story."
I expect all of us, at one time or another, in an attempt to understand our lives or discover what we ought to do, have gone to someone else with our stories. This is not merely the province of psychotherapists and priests, but of any good friend. "Tell me what happened. Tell me your story, and I'll try to help you make some sense of it."
You seem . . . stuck. Things fall apart. What does it all mean? Should you have chosen a different major after all? Were you meant to take that teaching job? Are you going to find someone to spend your life with, and will he or she remain true? What about the kids-are they headed in the right direction? Did you miss an opportunity in their lives, some key moment along the way? And if crucial moments are about to happen, will you recognize them? Will you miss your cues?
We humans share these lingering questions: "Who am I really? Why am I here? Where will I find life? What does God want of me?" The answers to these questions seem to come only when we know the rest of the story.
As Neo said in The Matrix Reloaded, "I just wish I knew what I am supposed to do." If life is a story, what is the plot? What is your role to play? It would be good to know that, wouldn't it? What is this all about?
"Seeing our lives as stories is more than a powerful metaphor," wrote Taylor. "It is how experience presents itself to us."
We Have Lost Our Story
And here's where we run into a problem.
For most of us, life feels like a movie we've arrived at forty-five minutes late.
Something important seems to be going on . . . maybe. I mean, good things do happen, sometimes beautiful things. You meet someone, fall in love. You find that work that is yours alone to fulfill. But tragic things happen too. You fall out of love, or perhaps the other person falls out of love with you. Work begins to feel like a punishment. Everything starts to feel like an endless routine.
If there is meaning to this life, then why do our days seem so random? What is this drama we've been dropped into the middle of? If there is a God, what sort of story is he telling here? At some point we begin to wonder if Macbeth wasn't right after all: Is life a tale "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?
No wonder we keep losing heart.
We find ourselves in the middle of a story that is sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, often a confusing mixture of both, and we haven't a clue how to make sense of it all. It's like we're holding in our hands some pages torn out of a book. These pages are the days of our lives. Fragments of a story. They seem important, or at least we long to know they are, but what does it all mean? If only we could find the book that contains the rest of the story.
Chesterton had it right when he s... --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.