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The Stories by which We Define Ourselves

I was at a party and a young man, to whom I’d been introduced when I arrived, was asking couples to tell the stories of how they met. The inquiry felt unusual to me and I had to pause to figure out why, because I remember when the story of Howard and I meeting was often pulled out and shared on similar occasions. I then realized that this young man was recently married. Stories of how people meet and fall in love was very much on his mind. Also it is one of the most significant shared stories that he and his wife have together. In contrast, Howard and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have so many shared stories they could fill a book. The story of how we met is no longer a defining element of our marriage. The hundreds of shared decisions, crises, joys, and adventures since are far more relevant to who we are now. Howard summed up this idea very well in a tweet:

Was at a party where @SandraTayler and I were asked about how we met. We’ve been married 26 years. How we met has very little to do with how we ARE. It’s a nice story, but a meet-cute is not a rom-com is not an actual life-long romance.

Life-long romance has far more to do with continuing to choose each other and make space for the other person in your life as you change (and they change) in all sorts of unexpected ways. When I try to imagine what story I would tell at a party to encapsulate Howard and I as a couple, I’m a bit at a loss. The story of a newly married couple is short and compact with a clear narrative arc. The story of a long-married couple is more like a series of epic fantasy novels with multiple points of view, lots of random external characters, and a plot that frequently gets lost in side tracks. The story of Howard and Sandra is not easily summarized.

On a separate occasion I met a different young man along with his father. During our conversation the father shared a story surrounding the birth of his son. I could tell that it was a family-defining story which forever changed the shape of all of their lives. As evidenced by the fact that when asked to tell about his family, this is the story the man chose to tell, even twenty-five years after it happened. When the conversation with the father was over, I had a chance to talk with the son. I could tell that he was used to this story being told, and was surprised when I suggested that perhaps at twenty-five he could claim a different story. He didn’t have to be defined by this story of his birth, but could instead bring forth stories of things he had done as an adult. That defining stories of a family could be updated and recast.

As long as we are alive, we are in a process of re-invention. Sometimes it is a massive renovation akin to knocking down walls and completely re-invisioning a room. Other times it is as subtle as putting a new cushion on a couch. Yet even subtle changes accumulate over time, and the stories we tell about who we are have to evolve along with us. The stories we tell about those we love, especially the stories told in public, especially the stories told while the loved ones can hear, those stories have power. The stories we tell make others feel stronger or weaker. They can build people up or push them down. Howard and I frequently tell funny stories on each other. We have a rhythm and a set of performance roles that we use in public for effect and the amusement of others: Howard the goofball and Sandra the responsible. Yet we always check to make sure that we aren’t trapping ourselves in the joke, forgetting that we are larger than the stories we tell at parties. Making sure we remember the other stories, the ones where Sandra is funny and Howard is the hero.

Most of the best stories of us aren’t the kind of stories which are good to tell at a party.

1 comment to The Stories by which We Define Ourselves

  • Ken Franklin

    I would substitute the word “sculpture” for “reinvention”. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, but that process of refinement, molding, and polishing is one of addition and accretion, not of replacement.

    Every story you tell adds to my appreciation of you, Howard, and your family. None of it replaces previous appreciation.