Don’t Waste Your Experience

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In the forums of The Habit Membership, Carey Christian recently posted an essay she had written about her experience as a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. She survived by hiding with classmates in a locked and darkened office for three hours. (You can read the whole essay here.)

The heart of the essay, however, is not those three hours of immediate peril, but the fifteen years after. Carey tells how she dealt with her trauma by isolating, going silent, and withdrawing. While others in her community were sharing their grief and bearing one another’s burdens, she chose to be alone, not even attending the memorial services where classmates, teachers, and other members gathered to grieve and start to heal. She writes, “At a time full of confusion, sadness, questions, weeping, brokenness, I was at home lost in my own confusion, convincing myself I had not experienced the tragedy, not really, that I was somehow less.”

These choices became a pattern that lasted fifteen years:

Staying silent, staying home, denying others my presence, denying myself the company of others, taught me something about myself that wasn’t true. I was not in a position to care for others then, and I convinced myself that this would always be true of me. Over the years, through college, career, starting a family, I stayed home in my heart and mind, feeling locked up in my silence, seeing only uselessness.

—Carey Christian, “Truth Lives: My Columbine Story”

But Carey ultimately came to make a different choice. That change is wrought, at least in part, by the act of writing this essay. She writes,

I’ve been locked in a room with a key for a long time. This is the key. I no longer feel shame. Sadness, yes, but not shame. I turn from this moment and make a new choice. The door is open and on the other side is freedom, light, air. Truth. Alive and well.

Hello, world. It’s been a long time.

—Carey Christian, “Truth Lives: My Columbine Story”

Isn’t that a great ending for an essay?

Carey wrote this essay seven or eight years ago. When she posted it in The Habit forums, she added this coda:

Since writing the above, a tremendous period of healing was unlocked in my life after the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. In 2019 I walked the halls of the school once more. And once more had the opportunity (and temptation) to stay home from a memorial. But instead I went. Though I had been to the memorial on the 10th anniversary, somehow this one was different. I made the choice to go despite feelings that I didn’t need to. It was after I had written this essay and had begun to understand that one’s presence, even in silence, is a gift. And so, as predicted, I went and stood with my father in silence, I spoke to no one, but I was there. I heard others like me and saw others like me and recognized myself as a member of this incredible community.

—Carey Christian

I’m always talking about the importance of writing for the sake of your reader, giving the reader something she can’t get for herself. Carey certainly does that in this essay, but can we also take a moment to reflect on what the act of writing does for the writer? I’ve been chewing on the idea that Carey’s essay as she wrote it in 2014 is a function of her processing things she couldn’t process 15 years earlier, and that her presence at the twentieth anniversary memorial in 2019 was a function of her processing the essay she wrote five years earlier, and that last paragraph is a function of her processing all of it. And if Carey chooses to add another paragraph five years hence, it will be different and insightful in even new ways. That’s how the process works. It takes time to know what things mean. Writing and reflecting greatly improves your chances of learning what there is to learn from your life.

It takes time to know what things mean. Writing and reflecting greatly improves your chances of learning what there is to learn from your life.

Jonathan Rogers

When I’ve had college students write personal essays and memoirs, their writing has often seemed thin compared to what adults write, even when the students themselves are brilliant. Is it because of a lack of life experience? Well, no…and yes. I notice that many of the best personal essays and memoirs by adults are about experiences that happened before they were college-age. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” But just because you’ve had an experience, that doesn’t mean you’re fully ready to write about it. The life experience that prepares you to write likely happens in the years after the dramatic experience.

I’m glad Carey didn’t waste her experience. I hope you won’t waste yours either.

This piece was originally shared in Jonathan’s weekly Habit Newsletter. If you’d like your own inbox to be graced with such insight—and with staggering frequency, at that—you can sign up for it by clicking here.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


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