I watched The Lord of the Rings with my son this weekend and was struck by a particular quote. It said a lot about the hardship of life and what it takes to live a good story.
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were.
And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Our lives as stories
I don’t know what life is like for you, but for me it can sometimes seem difficult. There are things I want to do — aspirations and dreams I have for myself.
And much to my surprise, I don’t always get to do that. So I huff and puff and throw my little tantrums. And then I remember.
It’s a simple lesson I regularly preach to the choir, one I relentlessly remind other writers and communicators about all the time. And ironically, one I am terrible at practicing.
Good stories involve conflict, which is a nice word for pain. People don’t become heroes without sacrifice, and as creatures of comfort, this is the last thing we want to endure.
Surely, our stories don’t have to require suffering in order them to be good — do they? They do, indeed.
Why am I sharing this with you?
We all have a story to tell: it’s the one we’re living. And we don’t get to tell that story by playing it safe and pretending the narrative is just about us.
No, there is something bigger happening than you getting up, drinking your coffee, taking out the garbage, and going to work. I know sometimes it feels like that, and other times it feels like the pain will never go away.
But all of this is trying to teach us something, to point us to a new revelation.
I won’t pretend like I have it all figured out; I don’t. But what I do know is there’s something liberating about letting go and realizing the story doesn’t have to be completely about me.
The cure for selfishness
Happiness is a paradox. The best way to be happy is to not try to be happy.
Why? Because happiness is a byproduct of living into your calling, and a self-centered life is ultimately a shallow, unsatisfying one.
Ever seen that show Toddlers and Tiaras? Talk about a perfect illustration of the ugliness of getting what you want.
I remember when my siblings were in their terrible twos — and threes and fours and fives. Toddlers aren’t always fun to be around (one time, my sister hit me in the face with a remote control, giving me a black eye).
But let’s face it: sometimes, we are those screaming little girls who haven’t gotten their way. We think life is about our comfort. It’s not; it’s about others.
We are our most fulfilled when pouring out our lives for something larger than us. (Of course, there is a cost to this.)
Consequences of living this way
Here’s where it gets real — where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I don’t want to get preachy, but you’ve only got one shot at this thing. Don’t you want to make it count? If you’re feeling that dissatisfaction that plagues so many, here’s the solution:
Find a bigger story.
You making a lot of money to retire early — that’s a small story. You getting out of debt to help others live free lives — that’s a bigger story.
Still, it’s one thing to talk about this stuff and quite another to do it. So let’s say you want to live a good story. Get ready, because this is gonna hurt.
Remember these three realities:
- Good stories don’t have predictable endings. So let go of your silly little plans and embrace the journey.
- Heroes don’t always feel like heroes. Being heroic means doing the hard thing, which often hurts at the time.
- Pain is how we grow. A character doesn’t change without it, so stop finding ways to avoid discomfort. Step into the inconvenience.
So how about it? Are you ready to start living a bigger story? Here’s a pledge I’m making (feel free to join me):
Today, I choose more than me. I invite the bigger story. (Tweet that.)
*Photo credit: TheOneRing.net