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

Narrative threads, re-visit

This post, written almost exactly two years ago, speaks to my heart today. Though winter seems to keep blasting on, though we’re still quarantined inside our homes for almost a month now, all is not lost. My rhubarb has once again dared to break through the frozen ground to remind me that this plot has yet to fully unfold.

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina. It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray. I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope. I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too. I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot was unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant. In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time. I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving. My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the Adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope. So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and we will let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.