No matter how bad a day I have had, I make time to set up my coffee for the morning. I tell myself, “I can face anything as long as I have coffee, first thing.” I get up at 5:00 a.m., get my coffee, and say morning prayers, but then comes the next step in my ritual that derails my day: I read the news. There is usually not much news in the morning. Not much new happens while most of America sleeps. But I am a news junkie. As I progress through my local newspaper, the New York Times, the Washington Post, andI read the stories of the tragedies of others — they can make me cry. I become completely fascinated by a recipe for a simple five-ingredient Asian dinner I can make in just fifteen minutes in my wok. And before I know it, I have burned through the entire morning.
It used to be easier when I had to rush off to work. I did not have time for this. Now, with the physical distancing required because of the danger of the Covid-19 virus, most of us are finding we have a lot of time on our hands. To be honest, I have never done well with unstructured time. I have always liked going to work. It gives organization and purpose to my day. Yeah, I admit I am not very spontaneous... well, I can be, but I have to plan for it. I do that by sometimes leaving empty spaces in my calendar... but I admit those blank spaces make me nervous. I used to think I was lazy, but the truth is I am very motivated when I am truly committed or interested. It is just when I do not have a plan for work or a schedule of what I want to do, I have these default time-sucking behaviors I go to: read the news, read a book, nap.
What I have begun to realize is much of my life has been spent telling stories, but not my own. I am telling the stories of others when I become engrossed in a political story. I am telling the stories of others when I am moved to tears over the report of a family’s tragedy. I am telling the stories of others when I do not take time to critically think through some clever meme on Facebook. And while I am busy telling the stories of others, I am not telling my own.
Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with telling the stories of others. For thirty years as a teacher, I told the story of an institution, public schools. My story was the importance of an elementary education. For eight years as a representative of the teachers’ association in my state, I told the story of the importance of teachers and students in our society. For fourteen years now as an Episcopal priest, I have told the story of another institution, focused on the meaning of the church and faith and community. To be fair, the stories of institutions like the school system, the teachers’ association, and the Church became part of my life, and I still believe in them. You too have institutions you believe in whose stories have become entwined with the story of your life.
Unless you allow yourself to become a complete narcissist, it is also important to tell the story of the sufferings of others and the need for justice as we stand for what is right. You have to be able to tell people’s stories and have empathy for their lives. The problem comes when you begin to spend your whole life telling stories of others, but your own gets lost. Sadly, I have often treated my story — my personal life and goals and values — as less worthy of being told. Sometimes it comes out in simple ways: My desk at work is spotless, but my desk at home is a disorganized pile. Sometimes it comes out in deeper, more complex ways: I have not pursued dreams I have had since I was a young man because those other stories — usually about work — were more worthy of being told than my own. I am afraid I have been so busy telling the stories of others, I hardly recognize my own some days.
The last thing I want to do is give another person a step-by-step list of how to begin to tell your own story; I am just beginning to learn to tell mine. But I know the place to start is by realizing every morning the most important story you can tell is your own — not the newspaper's, not an institution's, not your boss's, not a politician's. What you value and how that shapes your time and attention is a critical story the world needs to hear.
There are a lot of important stories to be told in this world, stories of bravery and suffering, of triumph and defeat, of courage in the face of despotic power, and so many stories of love and compassion that feed our souls and make us better people. Still, your story is just as worthy of being told and is as important to our world as any other, but only you can tell it.