Battle of the Narratives!

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
— Horatio Spafford

You may be familiar with the inspiring story behind this hymn, but in case you're not, Mr. Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer in the 1870s when his life was rocked by a series of tragic blows--any one of them enough to wreck a lesser man. First his only son dies of Scarlet Fever. The next year, the Great Chicago Fire ruins him financially. Two years later, his four daughters go down on a ship while crossing the Atlantic. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, "Saved alone."

As Spafford sails back to join his wife and crosses near the place where his daughters perished, he pens these vulnerable lyrics. As remarkable a story as this is, it's a testimony to more than Spafford's character; it's a probing insight into the narrative he has chosen to live within.

Have you ever noticed that two people can experience very similar circumstances...and then attach dramatically different interpretations to the events? For example, a company downsizes and fires two high-level managers. One becomes enraged and fires off a scathing email to the entire company roster before his access is cut off; he leaves a bitter man, convinced he was unjustly victimized. The circumstances prove it, right? Well, maybe...but there's another story you can choose. The other manager respectfully empties her office, thanks her boss for five good years, and tempers her disappointment with the belief that this is her sign to start the business she's always wanted but never had the courage to launch...until now.

Same events. Radically different narratives.

Every one of us chooses the story we live in and the character we will play in that story. Take one of the most toxic stories: "Life's a bitch, and then you die." Every disappointment reinforces that tragic plot-line and becomes self-fulfilling. Conversely, most people who approach greatness and come into the public eye for their achievements (not counting the artificial world of Hollywood) do so by persevering through--and actually being empowered by--failures and setbacks.

These people see themselves in a fundamentally different narrative. They are the "comeback kings," the "weebles who wobble but don't fall down." The ones who try 1600 failing filaments before one powers a commercially viable lightbulb. Their stories are defeat-proof because they are committed to a good ending and assign a redemptive purpose for suffering and setbacks. Just like Horatio Spafford.

What narrative are you living in? And what role do you play in your story? Are you the one who always gets the bad breaks? Or the one who always lands on your feet? It's pretty cool that you get to pick. No, you don't choose your circumstances, but you get to decide what those circumstances mean in the larger narrative. And that's all you need for a great story.

Posted on November 11, 2014 .