When I was younger, my dad used to tell me stories before bed. These were tales that rivaled those of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn — only they were true. He told me about growing up in Chicago, the same place where I was born, but our experiences were vastly different.
Each night, I got to hear a different story from my dad. He told me about the time he saw a UFO or when Santa Claus broke into his bedroom to give him a candy cane.
I became the audience of a mastery storyteller, enthralled with the unusual and interesting characters from another lifetime. These were incredible, audacious tales of bravery and adventure. And I was immediately captivated.
Every night, I would go to bed amazed. And every night, my dad would tell me the same thing:
Some day, you’ll have stories of your own to tell.
But I never believed him. There was just no way I’d ever have stories like my dad’s — I was certain of it. They were just too incredible. And for the longest time, I was right.
Finding my story
For many years, I lived an average life of safety and security. I got good grades, didn’t get into trouble, and never broke a bone. I lived a boring story. I knew this; I just didn’t know how to fix it.
Not until I left home for college did I find a deeper narrative into which I could immerse myself. I began to travel and slowly started coming alive.
At first, the trips were small — weekend jaunts with friends and such. Then they evolved into entire summers, road-tripping across the country to work at a summer.
Eventually, my wanderlust led me out of the country on a study abroad program in Spain, which was where I started grasping what it meant to live a truly great story.
On the streets of Seville, I met a homeless man named Micah. As a kid who grew up in a farm town, I never spent much time around homelessness, so meeting someone who lived on the streets was uncomfortable.
I didn’t have a neat and tidy compartment in which to place such an experience. So I did what most people would do: I walked away.
I ignored the man, at first pretending I didn’t see him and then downright dismissing him. My friends and I had plans for the evening; we were going to check out the city’s nightlife. We didn’t have time for vagrants. We told Micah we’d come back later (we were lying).
“Will you be here tomorrow?” my friend asked.
Micah shook his head: “I could be here, there, I could be anywhere — I could be DEAD tomorrow.”
The statement shocked me, but I wasn’t affected enough to actually do anything. So I walked away. As I did, Micah started screaming at us, begging for help. My pace quickened, and Micah’s shouts got quieter in my ears, all the while growing louder in my mind.
The faster and further I went, the more I could hear his voice. It was unbearable.
Finally, I stopped. Handing my backpack to my roommate, I told him there was something I had to take care of. And I did what I didn’t want to do: I turned around. I’m not sure why; I just knew I needed to. And what happened next changed my life.
I treated Micah to a McDonald’s hamburger meal. As he stuffed his face with fries and drenched the partially-chewed food with his drink, I tried to talk to start a conversation.
At first, he just listened, but then he spoke up, asking me why I came back. I told him I had to. That I couldn’t really explain it, but just knew I needed to turn around. Then he told me something that I’ll never forget:
“You are the only one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ve been standing on that street corner for months, and you are the only one who stopped.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I refused to accept it. However, he insisted it was true.
After about an hour, Micah and I shook hands and parted ways. I never saw him again. But I was never able to look at a homeless person — much less anyone in need — the same way again.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to change a story. A simple change of mind. One act that alters the course of your life forever. Turning around when you’d rather run away.
Think of the stories you grew up with. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Catcher in The Rye. Casablanca. The Matrix. In each and every epic that moves us, there is an element of surprise, some unexpected turn that sends the hero on a journey.
Storytelling experts call this the “inciting incident.” It’s the event that calls a character, often unwillingly, into a larger story. And it is always uncomfortable.
The word, “incite,” means to stir into action, and that’s what all great stories do. They change us in some way, make us move. And it’s not enough to believe in a good story; you also have to live one.
Whether we realize it or not, we all are storytellers. With the lives we are living and the risks we are, or aren’t, taking, we are crafting a narrative for eternity.
For those who would dare to live differently, the road before us is not the path of least resistance. It’s scary and costly, full of unexpected twists and turns. But on this jagged journey, we find the one thing we’re searching for: meaning.
Answering the question
For years, I never understood why I didn’t have stories like my dad. But now I do. There was one difference between my childhood and his: risk. It wasn’t until I encountered this truth — that without conflict a story is incomplete — did my life change.
All our favorite films and books are telling us the same thing: Safety is not what you were made for.
Most of us want our lives to matter, but few are living differently. Why is this? Because we’re afraid of the cost (I know I am). We know that it’s only in the throes of danger that men and women become heroes. And this scares us (as it should).
But we must consider the cost of not risking safety and comfort. Where would Middle Earth be if Bilbo Baggins had never left the Shire? What would have become of a galaxy far, far away if Luke Skywalker stayed on the farm? In our own lives, there is a similar question.
I pray you have the courage to answer it.
If this resonates with you, check out Tell Me a Story, a new book by Scott McClellan, on Amazon (affiliate link).