Connecting Dots: Making Sense of Our Stories

We are not just a collection of stories – we are a story. So how do we begin to make sense of a collection of seemingly random and unrelated stories to find a theme of who we are and what our purpose is? 

Dan and Rachael talk about uncovering the lies in our stories, finding the connective threads in the themes of our lives, and discovering the ways in which our stories reveal something unique about the character of God.

To learn more about telling your story in a deeper and more transformative way, we invite you to participate in one of our Story Workshops.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: All right, Rachel, I have a very simple question for you. You ready?

Rachael: Sure.

Dan: All right. Does your life make sense?

Rachael: I mean, honestly, I kind of want to say, yeah.

Dan: Well, I want to know how come, because the question that beginning moves toward is, I’m aware we’re coming up to the school’s 25th anniversary. That’s one example. And then recently, Becky and I lost a very dear friend. And in that death, it’s prompted a lot of stories. But what I think I’ve found is we’re all, I mean, we begin to talk about how many stories actually are we? It’s millions. And even though I was part with a number of others of the start of Mars Hill that eventually became the Seattle School with regard to our friend Lynn, there are just so many stories. And yet what I find is they’re almost disparate. It’s like largely, here’s a story, here’s another story. And I kind of know that my life has a certain senseability, a certain thematic consistency. But I think I’m more aware right now of just how scattered, at least my stories are. Now that might be largely because of the reality of trauma that death brings, but I think that’s what I’m wanting, at least for us to engage. How do we connect stories in a way that allows the stories to connect? Versus… like Becky has, I don’t know how many freaking volumes of pictures, but they’re all time related. They’re not…

Rachael: Oh, yeah, totally. Yeah. I have a a bin that is chronological, but it’s like, what are the stories? And they’re ra all random. Yeah.

Dan: The only thing that links them is they’re in 1982. But. There has to be something more with regard to our ability to connect stories. So that’s what I want us to ponder. So when I say to you, does your life make sense? Do your stories feel, and again, I’m not saying every story, but enough connection that you’d go, oh, I see some really significant themes being played out.

Rachael: And I think that’s probably why I would say yes. But that has not always been the case, and it’s not always the case. But I would say I’ve been so privileged to do enough story work over the past, oh gosh, 16 years or 17 years, that there is enough of, even if I’m caught off guard in the moment, I can be like, oh, there’s a familiarity here. Or even if a story is really absurd, there’s enough thematic sense of my absurdity and weirdness to be able to go, oh, of course this is happening to you. Or of course this is a story you’re collecting of your life. But that has not always been the case. And I do remember a very distinct season when I came to Mars Hill Graduate School, now the Seattle School, that in many ways I was pursuing a master of divinity. But my heart questions, the cry of my heart was help me make sense of this life. I’m so lost in a sea of confusion and feeling at the mercy of these stories, and so unsure of how they’re connected and how they have impacted me, and who am I? That question of who am I and how did this come to be? So definitely that still feels so close, that sense of the disconnection.

Dan: There’s something about, again, daily-ness and something about space, time and space that organizes a lot of what we do is I look at my calendar and we’re looking at doing a podcast today. It organizes without actually creating synthetic connected themes to be able to see a sense of both the depth of those life stories, but also their breadth. Yes. So I, let’s just start with this question, and I know it’s a big one that we’ll spend a good portion of our time on, but how did you begin making connections that aren’t just time and space bound?

Rachael: Well, I mean, this is a little bit of a complex question because of my orientation and location in the priestly realm. Because stories for me, I mean, I was always in a story and looking to this story of God. And I do think for me, initially making sense of my story did start with this kind of engagement with these stories of God and feeling resonance in places where I connected. Now, the shadow side of that is that I also had a lot of stories. I felt like, well, this doesn’t fit within the story of God, at least the way the story of God was being told to me. So what do you do with those stories? You know, kind of just have to banish them off. So I think for me, it was being invited, one, to actually acknowledge I do have, I hold many stories that have that hold meaning, that have impacted me, that have shaped me. And so it really did start that kind of true. Well, I mean, even in college, I was just talking to someone about this the other day. I had to take this class called Western Civilization. And so even thinking about these collective stories, these larger stories, and I remember being like, wait, there’s a Western civilization. We don’t all have the same story that has shaped us the larger story. There’s different large stories that impact how we see the world and understand the world and make sense of the world. That blew my mind. So when I came to the Seattle School, I had this kind of biblical studies, sociology, anthropology, those are the stories of our culture, the stories of humanity, the biblical stories. I did not have any psychology or therapeutic frame in my education. So being invited to understand, oh, my deeply personal particular stories matter and reveal something, it’s not just they’re happening to me, they’re connected to all these other stories and they reveal something. So honestly, the biggest kind of first, oh, my stories, two things I would say. I would always refer to myself as just an incredibly anxious person as just a personality trait. And so being invited to start to tell the stories that shaped my anxious body and why I still have anxiety was a huge revelation. The other piece was I came to seminary, seeing myself as a helper. I’m a helper. It’s what I do, and that’s just who God made me. I’m just helpful and people need me. And then I remember my first attempt to actually be helpful in a story group flopped majorly, and I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. And the facilitator just simply said something like, Rachael, are you aware that there are stories that have shaped why you feel like you have to be helpful at all times and why it feels terrifying when you’re not? Do you want to look like, do you want to actually start telling those stories or even being curious about what are those stories? So I would say those were the two kind of entry points for me, contending with my anxiety and contending with this part of me that I was actually very proud of, but was also slowly killing me. I mean, when I came to the Seattle School, I was very burnt out. I was coming out of youth ministry. There was just a lot there. And so I think that’s how it started for me.

Dan: Yeah, that’s so crucial just to underscore that you’re looking at a quality, and again, it may feel more like a burden, but the quality of I, I’m anxious, but I’m also somebody who loves and feels driven or called to help. Just simple words that I think any human being can come to a initial statement of this is how I seem to be in the world. But operating then with that next question of what stories may have shaped this becoming of a trait, I just think it’s crucial. I think for me, what’s even most recent, a matter of the last couple months is a good friend said, do you use the noun writer about yourself? Are you a writer? And I, so quickly… even though I thought I had done this work well before, I said, nah, guy, I write, that’s a verb, but I’m not a writer. And thankfully he pressed in a little bit more to the question of how come? I mean, you are a writer. And I’m going, no, I’m not a writer. Like CS Lewis is a writer. Flannery O’Connor is a writer. My dear friend Tremper Longman is a writer. I’m not a writer. I write. And again, he pressed a couple more times and I told him this story of fourth grade Ms. Worth standing over me, long bony finger and snarling at me, you’ll amount to nothing because you can’t spell. And I’ve always thought, again, that was a bad moment. I mean, it confirmed something I intuitively thought to be true. And that was, I’m stupid. And not only I’m stupid, but I have no future given the reality of, so as we were talking about that, one of the questions he said was, I know one story can shape a whole life. I know that, but are there other stories that deepen it and broaden it? And just that simple phrase, deepen it and broaden it. And I’m like, well, that’s interesting. And again, like most of us, I was totally blank for I don’t know, a while. And another story slipped in, and I ended up freshman year of college, not really planning to go, it’s too long a story, but I ended up being accepted to a nice school only because I played football. And Trumper, who was already planning to go to that school, contacted the coach, made an interview, created a context, even though my grades were so pathetic and my SAT beyond impossible, that anybody could get it low, I still got in. But within a really short period of time, and this is what came back to memory, was within a really short period of time, I was sent to a remedial writing course and a remedial speech course. And in both cases, I lasted only a week before both professors, even though it was their responsibility to keep me in for a semester, both of them looked at me and said, I’m sure they had no contact, but they said, look, I can’t be of help to you. I can’t you, your language is so disjointed. We really can’t help. And you’re writing impossible. It makes no sense at all. Just never get a job. And that was the phrase, never get a job that requires you speak or write.

Rachael: Wow. Wow.

Dan: Further deepening confirmation. So even though obviously I’ve somehow matriculated educationally nonetheless, when asked that question, are you a writer? The haunting… And I think that’s part of what we’re inviting one another too, is what stories have haunted you? Even with the reality of lots and lots of experiences that contravene contradict what we would have known at a certain point. And it was only when I began to make those connections to those stories that the lie, again, I have enough data, but something of that deep internal lie could begin to be engaged in a new way. So connecting stories we’re really saying isn’t having an album of photos that you can look at and go, this story happened, this story happened, but where you really do have a theme book that you can look at and say, this has confirmed certain lies, this has confirmed and opened the door to certain realities that are lovely. So I’m curious what you’re doing with those stories.

Rachael: I mean, ultimately they’re, my first experience is just, it’s heartbreaking to me. And then it’s that leap of the absurdity that they’ve held so much haunting. And of course they have, because even when you say like, oh no, I’m not a writer. And I’m like, I found myself counting. How many books have you written? It’s kind of where I went. And then thinking about just how if I didn’t know these were your story, I mean, they are stories that do not actually fit with how I experience you and how I know you to be. And it’s making me think. And isn’t that the… why we have to get into them and the haunting of them, because no amount of, well, Dan, you’ve written this many books and look at your life. You speak and teach and write for a living. That’s what you do. And actually, you wield language better than most people I know. And that’s why people want to come do therapy with you. And you see so well, it’s like no amount of praising your gifting or even taking you to facts that contradict your felt sense, actually bring about the kind of freedom and change that we long for. So I find myself, to be honest with you, I find myself taking great hope in the reality that this story work… It’s not like we reach an end to it or that Jesus stops revealing places that were meant for more freedom. And so I simultaneously feel like such grief and sorrow that these are still places that haunt you, but also deep gratitude that there’s more invitation to go deeper and to connect the dots of how these have come to be stories that still hold sway over your heart, mind, and body.

Dan: Yeah, the haunting, I still would argue, is really the context for something very holy to happen. Cause I have named myself well prior to this as a writer, and yet the question when it came in the context, I just had a hard time saying it. But in the beginning process of being invited again to both that depth and breadth, other stories, thank you for this story. And it is enough. Nonetheless, that idea of a heartbreaking haunting story likely has siblings, or at least family members that may be a year or five or 10 beyond. And I think that’s often where we don’t make connection to see, in some sense, not merely the star, but the constellation and where you begin to see the constellation of stories that have this imprint that indeed have that haunting. I think it’s the context of where the Spirit is going to be knocking on the door. And it may take for someone like me, a lot of the knocking to be in a position where I go, oh, I had not thought about those college stories. I don’t think you’ve ever heard.

Rachael: Never. No, never. I’ve heard the elementary school one, but no, not the college one. I’ve heard seminary ones, but not the college.

Dan: And some measure, it’s so shameful to be thrown out of remedial classes, just to be in a remedial class is not exactly one of the great honors of life. But in that to be taken to a point of both the irony and absurdity, as you put it, yeah, I’ve got enough data, this is what I’ve been doing for decades.

Rachael: Well, I’m even thinking about in our trainings, we create a creative expression that articulates our sense of calling. And even in your creative expression, there is a writer named as a part of your calling. But I think that’s what I’m saying is we can even come to a place of owning this to be true for us and still need more freedom.

Dan: Well, and to me at least what we’re beginning to say is that much of this is Spirit work. This is where we need to be continually opening the conversation with the spirit of God, of show me, reveal my heart, reveal what is in some sense binding, but also what is opening to the process of me becoming more of who I’m meant to be and to be able to name myself accurately before the living God. So that process of once the Spirit begins to do the work, I think there is a sense in which I don’t think I would’ve come to those stories without a friend setting the stage, right. Being able to go just the question, do you see yourself to be a writer? I think most people would presume, given what you were putting words to that, I’ve written a few books that the answer is, well, of course, how crazy to even ask something as obvious. But I think that’s where both the Spirit but also good friendships, good caring, engagement always begins with that curiosity of can I? And again, it’s almost like, can I hover a drone? Not the best of image, but can I just look from above and look at the tapestry or the geography of your life and come into it with a curiosity? And that I think, is that damnable rare. I just wish that gift of being curious about one another was a daily phenomenon in all relationships, and it is just not.

Rachael: Yes, that is very true.

Dan: So that calling of being invited to a story, again, I want to use the word, there has to be a depth to it. And depth always includes what’s the setting? That’s the idea of can I see a drone over your world? See the larger playground? And yet always has that movement into who are the characters. And my good friend said to me, what do you remember about those two teachers? And I’m like, oh, Susie asked that. I was like, I’m done. I don’t want to go back to, I can see the classroom. Yeah, I can barely see the professor, but I can remember being called to the desk and literally only person in the whole class being called up for this dismissal. So when we begin to engage a story, who are the characters? What’s the setting, what’s the plot? And can you remember any of the dialogue? And even if you can’t remember, what’s the likely dialogue that occurred? Facial, non-verbal, verbal. Can you begin to, in one sense, let your heart dip into get into the water, and it will be either cold and icy or overwhelmingly hot doubt. It will be tepid. And there will be that sense of, I don’t want to stay in this, but that is part of story connection, is will you get in to the story?

Rachael: And like you said, that work, I love the language of it’s going to either be hot or cold and you’re not going to want to stay in it long. And I think it’s because these are often places and you put words to it that are so deeply connected to where we are really bound by shame, where we feel contemptuous towards those parts of our, not just the people in the story, but our character in this story, whatever age we are, what our face looks like. And when I’m doing this work with people, often I will ask, what do you feel toward that fourth grader? What do you feel towards that college student? And it is just so revelatory because again, the nature of this kind of connecting the dots is not just a, oh, well, it’s good to remember that story, how it really happened. It’s actually so deeply revelatory about our current warfare and struggles with our own self, with our relationships with others where there is debris and heartbreak. And so they just, they’re revelatory in a kind of way that can be simultaneously in the depths. So relieving because we feel less crazy. But that relief only lasts for a minute.

Dan: Yes.

Rachael: When we realize, oh, I, I’ve got to actually spend time. This is not going to be a once one entrance into the depth, and then that’s it. And that’s all I have to do. And I think that, I say this a lot to people, healing takes time. And these stories are worthy of tending to over long seasons and almost like cyclically, my guess is entering that fourth grade story with this connection to another story is then a deeper, it’s another invitation to, even if it’s a story you’ve spent time in, it’s like sometimes there’s more and we come back again and again and again. And as you said, the depth and the breadth, why we don’t just stop with that one story. We kind of have to see, especially ones that haunt us, what are the other stories?

Dan: Yes. And in that other stories, my good friend, basically as I began telling him the freshman year experience, he said, I’m curious, because I was obviously making connection between these stories. He said, well, do you have a sense of what happened after you walked out of each of those different classrooms? And I went, oh, mean, I’m sure I don’t remember the particularity, but I was stoned for days. I don’t remember. In one sense, I obliterated the experience of shame by risky, dangerous, and foolish behavior. And he goes, what do you think you did as a fourth grader? Because you probably didn’t have the option at that point. You weren’t drinking at that point. And I’m like, nah, that would be nine. No, probably no drugs, no course not. I wonder what you did at that point. And the moment he asked that question, wow, it was like, oh, remember going to the playground and making a fool of myself. And he’s like, oh, so you have always handled shame by increasing your shame. And I’m like, oh shit. I’m done. Thank you, friend. This is just not a conversation I thought we were going to begin to have. And when you begin to feel the clench, you begin to hear something inside of you going, I’m out of here. I’m done. Let’s, there’s too much, if we can use the word here, too much meaning, too much sense going on, then you kind of know the proverbial being painted in a corner by the goodness of God is at play. And at least for me, what he was naming is, you get dangerous, you get crazy. You create incredible foolishness in order to escape feeling like a fool, because at least there…

Rachael: You chose it.

Dan: … you have some degree of control. So breadth, breadth is always going to take us into themes that may look like they’re, I don’t know, four or 5,000 feet above ground level, but it’s like where the currents are significantly at play. What have you found when you step into thematic matters with regard to your stories?

Rachael: Oh, look, I just, even listening to you to practice deep breathing, I, it’s, again, it’s back to that when we are caught, caught and we get to, we’re seen and known for a moment in a way that is not just like, oh, we knew this about ourselves and we were just waiting for someone to see it and name it. It is a homecoming to ourselves in that moment. This is, is so true. How have I not seen this before? Or maybe I’ve seen this before, but I kind of forgot. Now I’m back to remembering this is a core struggle of mine. It both can be true. It, it’s like a simultaneous experience for me of just, again, deep relief because I long to be known. I long to be healed. Deep terror. Because to be honest, when stories you can kind of isolate a story, it’s like, oh, this was just a one-off weird thing that happened to me. When it becomes thematic and we have to reckon with one our own powerlessness to actually stop something from happening or our own collusion with something that keeps it happening. So that, yes, like you said, so we can maintain some sense of control. I was thinking, oh, I totally was more like, it wasn’t so much like, oh, foolishness. It was like, oh, you’re crazy. You’re too serious. So then it was like, oh, you think I’m crazy? You think I’m crazy? I will. Oh, if you want to see crazy, I’ll give you crazy that way. If you now don’t want me, I at least can be like, yeah, that was legitimately crazy. So many of my stories are getting into the stories realizing, oh, I was actually quite stunning in the initial moment. There was something really beautiful. There was something really lovely about my voice. It wasn’t disgusting and annoying, but the way I dealt with the rejection or the violence was totally like, oh, I must have been so obnoxious. Or I spoke out of line, or I’m not feminine enough, or I was I don’t know, I was crazy or whatever. Because again, it feels like I can tolerate the believing work that’s true. So then we get into the debris. Get into the debris.

Dan: Yes. Oh goodness.

Rachael: And as we started with the Holy Spirit and this invitation of the Spirit, the debris is not just emotional, it’s not just physical, it’s also deeply spiritual.

Dan: Well and debris is what I think most of us want to hide in our most desperate efforts to look okay or to look far better than okay. And yet there’s something about coming into the wreckage, the heartache that is so counterintuitive as let’s get it cleaned up, let’s get it done and resolve. Versus can we walk in these ancient areas and know that in some sense, there was civilization before we were our age, we were young. And in that, what does it mean to honor, and again, not bless the harm and not bless having been abused, but blessed that there is fight, flight, freeze, fawn. There are trauma responses that indeed have increased something of our own debris. But in the initial moments of our heartache or of the loss or the shame, they kept us alive. They were life-giving moments for us that enabled us to get from those periods to where we are. And I think that it is easy as it is for me to say to a client or to a friend when it’s back to look at the man in the mirror. What does it mean for me to bless in this case something of the absurd beautiful irony that something in me, even though I don’t remember this at all, something in me essentially said, I will write, I will speak. And though you wouldn’t have known that for many years after those experiences, can I join? And bless the irony that what evil intended for harm, there is something, again, a lot of debris still, but something to be blessed in the process of the defiance, to continue a path that would not have been predicted on the basis of a fourth grade teacher. So I think there is, again, not a bow to wrap up our time, but a sense that the resurrection really is irony. It is the mockery of death. That death, you do not get the final word. Fourth grade teachers who are brutal. You don’t get the final word. And in that process, I don’t think we can come to engaging, naming and resisting the urge to clean the debris up, but actually sit in the debris, sit in the ashes, and to know that there’s something in the ashes that will be beautiful.

Rachael: Thanks be to God.