Trouble Drives the Narrative, re-visit

Written in May 2018, this post remains a favorite of mine. I’ve revisited it here — it’s a lesson I return to.

Every story worth reading is built around a problem –forbidden love, mistaken identity, murder, theft, robbery, and the like. I doubt many of us would even bother to read a story in which everything goes smoothly or in which the main character never faced a challenge. What would be the point?

If when Mayella Ewell accused Tom Robinson of violating her, someone had stepped up and said, “Come on now, you just want to accuse an innocent black man because it’ll make you feel better about yourself,” and Mayella had said, “Oh, you’re right. Sorry about that,” To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t have been a story. Sure, we all would’ve preferred Tom to have gone free — he was innocent after all, but Harper Lee builds her story around this fictional trouble to reveal a real-life trouble of the time. And that trouble drives her narrative.

In the story, Atticus Finch wrestles with racial injustice. We see him take risks to stand up to prejudice, shoot the symbolic rabid dog, and try to explain the harsh realities of life to Jem and Scout — and those are the reasons we love this story! We don’t love the ugliness of racism, the trial of an innocent man, his conviction, or his death. No, we like the character who recognizes and stands up to injustice, who doesn’t lose his head, who is able to speak truth and maintain hope. We don’t love the conflict, we love what the character does in the face of the conflict.

Without conflict a story hardly exists.

In fact, from early grades, we learn that stories have an arc — the exposition in which the writer provides context and sets the stage for the action, the rising action that introduces the conflict, the climax where the outcome of the conflict becomes evident, the falling action during which the loose ends get tied up, and the resolution that enables us to close the book and move on to the next story. The heart of every story is the conflict — the trouble drives the narrative.

The trouble, however, is not the story; the ways in which the character faces, weathers, endures, or learns from the trouble — that is the story.

Real life stories, too, consist of ups and downs, twists and turns, successes and failures, joys and disappointments. We expect these rhythms in the lives of fictional characters, but when we are living out our own life stories, we get can trapped in the mistaken belief that life is only good when it is free from trouble. When conflict is introduced — divorce, crime, illness, addiction — we can be tempted to believe that our story is over. Any writer knows that the introduction of conflict is the very beginning of the story.

The Wizard of Oz opens with a tornado that lifts Dorothy’s home off its very foundation, hurls it through the air, and lands it in a far away land with an impact that kills an evil witch. Talk about trouble! The story, however, is not about the tornado or the traumatic journey through the air or even about the witch, but it is about Dorothy’s ability to take step after step down the yellow brick road in a quest to find her way back to the people she loves.

The trouble is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.

Each of us has faced trouble. My close circle of friends could sit sipping coffee and share tales of betrayal, abuse, illness, financial ruin, scandal, and broken relationships. In fact, as we get to know one another, it is not typically our successes that we share but the troubles that have played out in our lives. Why? Because these times of trouble shape us. Just like Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson revealed his integrity and his ability to keep his cool when an angry mob confronted him in the middle of the night, our experience with trouble exposes our inner grit — that strength that lies dormant inside of us until a moment of crisis requires it to surface. Dorothy would’ve never known that she was capable of standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West if she hadn’t been hurled through the air and found herself in completely foreign territory.

Trouble reveals what we are made of.

In the smooth sailing sections of my life, I have been tempted to think that I know all there is to know. I have lived with the mistaken belief that I have it all together — that I can handle life all by myself, thank you very much. I’ve even been prone to judge those whose lives are not sailing smoothly — certain that their trouble is the result of some fault of their own.

However, when crisis arrives in my life — and it surely does — I have to admit that I don’t know everything, that I can’t work things out by myself, and that trouble comes with or without my help.

One thing remains certain: times of trouble shape me.

That’s what conflict does. It allows the character in the story to be transformed — to be dynamic — to be reshaped. Dorothy arrives back home with a new gratefulness for the people in her life. Scout, having watched Atticus navigate the trial of Tom Robinson, gains a new compassion for those who have a different experience than she does. Me? I learn humility and reliance on God.

Trouble brings me to my knees and forces me to admit that I am poor and needy. From this position on the ground, heaving with sobs, I hear a still small voice: Be still. Know that I am God. I will never leave you or forsake you. My sobbing softens. I remember that I am but dust. I am not exempt from suffering. No crisis has afflicted me that is not common to man. And certainly this trouble is not the end of my story.

I whisper a thank you as I wipe my tears and push myself up to standing. I remember the words prayed over me many years ago, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  That is my grit. That is my inner strength that sometimes lies dormant but never fails to surface in times of trial. The strength of my character is not in my ability to have all the answers but in my realization that I have none of them. That realization keeps my pride at bay and allows me to turn for guidance and strength to the One who knew me before I was born and who has written every page of my story. He is not surprised by the trouble; He is using it to re-shape my character.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33
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