We all have stories by which we live: A set of beliefs about ourselves and others which shape our views on life. Our stories shape and encode our attitudes, our reactions, our choices in partners or professions, our hopes and dreams. Many of those stories are ancient to us with every move and thought carefully interwoven throughout our own histories. Were we abused or cared for as children? Were we encouraged to play freely, or held back in fear by our caretakers? Did we consistently hear words of rage or words of encouragement? Did we feel smart, handsome or pretty and popular or bullied and lonely? Those stories are powerful, but they can change.
A friend of a clergy colleague told her this story about a male nurse.
The nurse had left steady work in a hospital to become a refugee worker. He had lived and worked in some of the most dangerous areas of the world setting up refugee camps. During his most recent stint, he and other relief workers were kidnapped by the rebels in that area. The week before that, another group of relief workers had been kidnapped and killed. He told my colleague’s friend he was more afraid and desperate than he had ever been in his life, riding in the back of the truck with men who held guns. He said he didn’t know where it came from, but he said to one of his co-workers, ‘We’ve got to change the story.’ He turned to one of the men with the guns and said, ‘We want to thank you for keeping us safe.’ The man with the gun was completely taken aback, but the male nurse continued, ‘It’s so dangerous and chaotic here. If you hadn’t come along, who knows what might have happened to us.’ The other co-workers joined in, thanking the men. That evening when they reached camp, the leader of the rebels said to them as he closed the door of their cell, ‘We’re putting you in here for the night to keep you safe. An armed guard will be watching over you all night.’ A day or two later, the nurse and his co-workers were all released unharmed.
We’ve got to change our stories. Stories of: always being a victim in relationships, of needing to be right all the time, of proving ourselves to others so they will love us. So many of us are living out the same scripts from which we have lived our entire lives. Many of them work, but many of them don’t. What’s worse, some of those scripts are hand-me-downs from previous generations.
I was stuck in a script for well over a decade which was keeping me stuck. In my early 30’s my father was dying of cancer. He was 57 years old and the cancer was back, for the second time. The horrific reality of the disease was plain enough that my therapist at the time encouraged me to go and complete my “unfinished business.”
I was terrified. From the time I was very little, I had always been afraid of my father, who was larger than life, but who had a temper. One specific incident when I was 13 years old had left it’s mark on me so deeply, that I had been stuck in that moment ever since then, not even realizing it.
The thought of going to say my “good-byes” was beyond what I thought I could do. I was still living the emotional life of that 13-year-old in a 30-year-old body…in the rebellious, “I need space” stage of an early teen.
I knew my therapist was right, however, and I traveled a distance to the state where he lived. I walked into his living room where he sat. He spoke no words, because he had a laryngectomy.
I sat down next to him, looked him in the eye and said, “Dad, I have always been afraid of you. But I’m here to tell you that I’m OK, I’m fine. What’s important now is that there is love, and peace, and forgiveness.”
He looked at me right in the eye. I had had never spoken truth to him like this before that moment. He blew a kiss to me and closed his eyes.
I walked out of the room and out of his house and in a moment’s time, I felt myself mature from that day at 13 to my present age. As I drove through the four states back to my home, I dry heaved most of the way. It felt like slabs of concrete were breaking up and all of the fear and anger of those early years were slowly released.
My Dad died two weeks later. But I was able to attend and even speak at his funeral. My story had changed. No longer was I the fearful girl who was afraid to stand up to authority figures. I had grown up to be a woman who could speak her truth with love.
Thank you, Dad.