Recently, I watched The Lord of the Rings films with my son and was struck by a important quote. It spoke to me about the hardship of life and what it takes to live a good story — and why we sometimes avoid life's difficulties.
Frodo and Sam are hiking through the mountains on their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring and bring back peace to the land, but at this point all seems lost. They can't see beyond their present reality.
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.
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, and much to my surprise, I don't always get those things that I want.
So I huff and puff and throw my little tantrums. But 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 one I am terrible at practicing myself.
Good stories involve conflict, which is just 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, we think, our stories don't have to require suffering in order them to be good, do they? But they do, indeed.
Why am I sharing this with you?
Because we all have a story to tell — the one we're living. That's the epic adventure we have to share with other people. And we don't get to tell that story by playing it safe and pretending the narrative is just about us.
There is something bigger happening than you getting up, drinking your coffee, taking out the garbage, and going to work. I know it feels like that sometimes, and other times like the pain will never go away.
But all of this experience is teaching us something, pointing us to a deeper revelation.
I won't pretend I have it all figured out. I don't. But I do know there's something liberating about letting go and realizing the story doesn't have to be completely about me.
Everyone wants to be happy. But here's the truth about happiness: it's a paradox. The best way to be happy is to not try to be happy. Happiness is a byproduct of finding your purpose, of living out your calling.
A life that is focused solely on self and one's own happiness ultimately ends up being shallow and unsatisfying.
The cure for the common life
Ever seen the TV 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 then their terrible threes and fours and fives, and so on. 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 ones who haven't gotten our 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 bigger than us.
I don't want to get too preachy, but you've only got one shot at this thing called your life. Don't you want to make it count? If you're feeling that dissatisfaction that plagues so many, the solution is simple: 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. Well, get ready, because this is gonna hurt.
Remember these three qualities of a good story
- Good stories don't have predictable endings. Let go of your silly little plans and embrace the journey for what it is.
- Heroes don't feel like heroes when they're being heroic. Being heroic means doing the hard thing, which often hurts, challenging every selfish bone in your body
- Pain is how a character grows. A character doesn't change without hardship, so if we want to live our own meaningful stories, we need to stop finding ways to avoid discomfort. Instead, we must step into 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.)
And if you're looking for an example of what this looks like, read this inspiring story from my friend Jeremy Statton.
What does living a “bigger story” look like for you? Share in the comments.