Our Unfinished Stories

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As the protagonist of Phantastes awakes under the beech tree (which wants to be a woman), he reflects on his desire to stay with her, and then narrates, “I sat a long time, unwilling to go, but my unfinished story urged me on. I must act and wander.”

Isn’t that a great summary of almost every moment of life? My wife wrote some beautiful words about Hutchmoot, which I cannot even begin to parallel. Please read the whole thing, but let me quote the ending:

I am home. And while my time on this street has been short, I can clean up this neighborhood in what little time I have left. I can plant trees and I can teach people to garden and I can paint buildings. But closer to the heart of what it means to revitalize, I can tell stories. With words, I can shape a context for those roaming this bleak landscape. God comforted me with story. I will care as I have been cared for.

Tricia and I are wrestling deeply with what was, three years ago, a seemingly clear call from God to move into a tough part of the city, and what is now a seemingly clear call to leave. There are conflicting emotions: Are we leaving because we’re afraid and pulling a Jonah? (I guess we’ll find out if a whale spits us back up on Grand Avenue.) Or would hanging on here simply be an act of pride? (“What will they say if we leave – that we failed God’s calling?”)

The “For Sale” sign is stuck in our yard. We know we’re supposed to go. Our unfinished story urges us on. We must act and wander.

Why do I mention this? It struck me, as I read it in Phantastes, that all of us are part of unfinished stories. This is obvious enough, and in MacDonald’s book, the protagonist makes that decision in isolation, and moves on. In our world, we bump constantly into other people who are also in the middle of unfinished stories. A hundred of us gathered at Hutchmoot, and we were a hundred unfinished stories, all intersecting in the same time and space.

We intersect with other unfinished stories every day, and this should cause us to be filled with grace toward one another. I think we’re often like the taunting fairies just a few pages earlier in Phantastes: “Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end! He! he! he! Look at him!” It’s easy to forget that each of us is stumbling through fairy land with hardly the faintest clue what direction we’re heading in, and it’s easy to taunt each other instead of encourage one another.

For my part, this whole transition into and out of the city will hopefully remind me that I’m as clueless in my unfinished story as everyone else is in theirs. I hope it helps me to walk with others when our stories intersect, rather than taunt and jeer, because they’re not walking like me, or in the same direction.


9 Comments

  1. Chris Yokel

    I think it was Plato who said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Maybe we could simply tweak that a little to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is an unfinished journey looking to find their way.”

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Travis, That’s one of my favorite parts of Phantastes. The longing in him to stay, yet the drivenness to go on and find out how his story unravels – isn’t that the paradox of continually stepping out from our comfort zone?

    Norman Grubb said we must learn to be see through-ers and not just see at-ers. It is so easy to look on the outsides of things; if we see an alcoholic we think, “Just stop drinking!” Or a co-worker who is always vaunting himself irritates us, and we hold it against him. But there are always reasons for behavior we can’t understand. Not excuses, mind you, but reasons, and if we can see through to some of the reasons it will often take the edge off of our irritation and help us lay down our judgments. One of the things that often helps me lay down my judgments is that I’ve often been judged by others who are looking only on the outside. I know how wrong people can be about me, and it stands to reason that I can also be just as wrong about others. Among the company of believers, as at Hutchmoot, much of the sweetness of it comes from seeing everyone as redeemed people in union with Christ, as the Body, as expressions of one gigantic Being of whom I also am a part. It involves thinking the best of each person.

  3. Travis Prinzi

    Norman Grubb said we must learn to be see through-ers and not just see at-ers

    Ron, yes! I’ve got a post brewing on how literature teaches us to be see-through-ers (a great term!). Training the eyes of our heart to see rightly is really such an important thing.

  4. barbara

    I’d go on and on about how much this resonates with me, but it would mostly be reiteration of what you’ve said so well here – that we are all unfinished stories and voices, together, in a larger narrative.

    Transitions set me in a place of vulnerability from which I can set up walls and “taunt and jeer” my judgment of other stories – or live in grace and “walk with others when our stories intersect.”

    I don’t remember where I saw this…but came across it sometime last week: “What is most personal to each of us is also most general among us.”

  5. Laura Droege

    “all of us are part of unfinished stories.”

    I love this. I’m actually thankful that I am a part of an unfinished story, that my story hasn’t ended yet. Even though it’s frightening to not know the ending, it’s also exhilarating and liberating.

    I’m a novelist, currently working on a 2nd novel; I still don’t know the ending; I don’t know what’s going to happen along the way that will shape and form the ending. I don’t know how the characters’ unfinished stories will continue to intersect and what that will look like. But that’s the exciting part. My characters aren’t bound to anyone else’s preconceived notions of what they are going to become and what they will do. They don’t know each other’s stories, either; so while they might judge each other, they may be dead wrong about what’s going on inside. For that matter, I might be dead wrong (at least in the 1st draft) about what their real story is.

    In other words, it’s a lot like my life. I don’t know my ending. I don’t know others’ endings, nor do I know the ins-and-outs of their stories. It reminds me to give others grace and not pass judgement on them.

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