By Susan Yanos
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Herman Melville’s gargantuan epic of the great white whale, Moby Dick. Now don’t worry, I’m not recommending the novel for your summer reading list, but as I have been thinking about the personal story and the spiritual journey, Melville’s narrator has been haunting my dreams—until I realized that it was reading this novel that first got me interested in why we tell stories.
I am a spiritual director, but I am also a writer and writing teacher. Over the years I have watched numerous students struggle to write the stories of their lives—in memoirs and non-fiction essays, or fictionalized in short stories and novels, in poetry, and in spiritual autobiographies. What I have seen over and over again is the power of story writing to reshape how people think about themselves and their world, about God and faith. Story theologians have said that stories serve three very important functions: world building, truth seeking, and self healing. In fact, some of my more astute students have noticed that writing is indeed spiritual work, and it was this that led me into spiritual direction.
Now as a writing teacher, I have all kinds of suggestions which help writers go through this process, but it has taken some time and struggle to figure out how to be with spiritual directees when they bless me with the stories of their lives. It has taken even longer to figure out how to be with myself as I tell my own story, and often I am not a very good companion! Fortunately, Melville’s narrator whispers through my dreams.
Call me Ishmael, he says, and we know immediately that this is not his given name but the name he chooses to give, perhaps just for this audience, just for this telling of the tale—and many readers of the novel get the impression that this is not the only time Ishmael has told his story, that indeed he has told it many times, may perhaps tell it many times more to any audience who will listen, whether willingly or not. He’s driven to repeat it, trying to understand why he alone survived while the rest of the crew died—many of whom he deems to be much better men than he.
You’ll remember that in the Bible, the oceans are representative of the great forces of chaos which God did not destroy but bound within their basins. Deep within them dwells the monster of chaos, Leviathan, sometimes described as many-headed or as a crocodile or—pertinent to our Moby Dick tale—as a whale. Often storytelling is the ship we sail over the watery chaos of our lives. We tell our lives’ stories to protect us from the turbulence which threatens to pull us under, or when we do go under, to somehow find meaning in the struggle, in the confusion and fear, in the suffering and pain. Like Ishmael, we tell the same stories over and over again. Perhaps you have witnessed this in family members who have undergone some trial and cannot let it go, or in yourself.
Henri Nouwen, in his book The Inner Voice of Love, writes, “There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgently, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences.” Nouwen wrote this book during an intense emotional and spiritual crisis. By studying his own urges and compulsions, his own desire to tell his story, he came to see that there is another way, a way to tell your story “from the place where it no longer dominates you,” where the compulsion to tell it is gone. Such an approach requires distance, as well as the vision to see the telling as the way to freedom, and the wisdom to know that the past does not need to control the present. Nouwen wrote that then the past “has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding towards others.”
So this telling and retelling are important, are necessary, because although we cannot change the relentless reality of the plot, we can change the role we choose to play. We can move from the victim of the story of our lives’ events to its survivor, to its hero. (I’m not suggesting that this is the ideal trajectory for our personal stories, but it gives an idea of the change that is possible.) Some argue that this change is so mind-altering that it is, in fact, a re-writing of our personal histories. I prefer the term re-visioning to re-writing. We see order where before there had been nothing but chaos, meaning where there had been only perplexity, a glimmer of beauty in the ugliness oppressing us, light in the shrouding and suffocating darkness. This all takes time—much time—and much patience as we go through the many retellings. And it takes a sensitive ear to pick out the subtle shifts in the story and bring them to our notice, along with a gentle reminder that God did not destroy the waters of chaos. Therefore, God is in the darkness as well as the light, in the ugliness and perplexity as well as in the beauty and meaning. God is in our hunger as well as in the loaves and fish that feed us.
Ultimately, this is not an intellectual task, but a heart task.
All this has led me to two questions I struggle with personally. First, how best to help directees—and myself—see God’s presence in all aspects of our lives, especially in the watery depths where Moby Dick smashed Ishmael? All too often we don’t feel that Presence. I trust that God will reveal in God’s own time, because I know that too often we are not ready to receive a direct assurance from others. We have first to experience fully what appears as God’s absence. But having said that, is there nothing I can do to help?
Second, what about those times when we get stuck in the telling, when we get lost in our own stories by becoming so absorbed with ourselves that we fail to see the larger themes of the story unfold? I want to know how we move from a compulsive storytelling—because locked in the past—to becoming open, aware, receptive, and trusting of the spiritual process, even to the “stuckness” itself, as well as to the grace within the telling, to any movement away from letting the past dominate the story, to God’s presence amidst God’s seeming absence.
For me, one key is to remember that just as Moses feared that he would be destroyed if he looked upon God’s face, begging God to show him just the behind, we too can often be destroyed by a too direct look at truth, especially the unpleasant truths about ourselves—or at least be so overwhelmed by them as to be unable to take them in. Such is the case for Melville’s narrator. Unable to take in the truth, he walks all around it by cataloguing every inch and pound of a whale in tedious chapters that most readers skip because, they complain, those chapters cause as much misery for them as the ship’s crew endured in its battle with the whale. The narrator thinks that he can eventually comprehend the mystery that is Moby Dick, as well as Captain Ahab’s need to conquer it, by studying mere facts.
I think that’s what happens in a lot of storytelling I hear from folks—this almost compulsive need to record every detail. But that’s approaching it with the intellect. Remember that getting beyond story compulsions is heart work. To engage the heart, we can tap into the imagination. Stories are so powerful because they combine the language of reason (declarative sentences, facts and explanation) with the language of the imagination (dreams, fantasies, the subconscious). Psychology has revealed that the imagination carries truth, but perhaps more important, the imagination allows us to hold contradictory elements in tension. Consequently, the language of the imagination can lead us more deeply into ourselves, becoming ways to face indirectly truths we are unwilling or unable to face directly. Such language carries deep insights which we cannot verbalize.
Many years ago, I discovered that students writing memoir instinctively chose images that resonated with them, but they didn’t know why and frequently didn’t even realize they’d done so. My job was to pay attention and then call their attention to the images. For instance, a young woman brought to workshop several short vignettes, including a story about her childhood cancer and another about how she thought a ghost lived in her childhood home. She believed nothing connected the pieces and wanted to throw most of them out and start over. I encouraged her not to, and eventually she began to see that her life was haunted by more than one specter. The largest specter was fear—the fear to dream of the future because her cancer might not remain in remission. Bringing that ghost into the light not only made for a good memoir, but it seemed to destroy the past’s power over her present. The ghost still inhabits the house—an appropriate metaphor for the self—but she found it is a pretty large house.
Or there was the student who wrote about a tornado that swept through her town, which she later saw as part of a pattern of imagery centered around destruction, revealing the dysfunction in a family marred by abuse. Or the student who came to understand her bungee jumping as a metaphor for the uncertainty of her life because she was born with a hole in her heart. These stories stunned the students’ classmates with their profound beauty, a beauty which resulted because the storytellers were willing to sit with the chaotic jumble of fragments they had generated until they could see links between them. The stories became a way for them to tell their truths indirectly, to let the images and the structure reveal deep insights which they could not, and probably still cannot, verbalize directly. By the way, these students were not extraordinarily gifted writers, nor did they have years of training as writers.
Therefore, one strategy we can adopt is to note the images which appear in our storytelling, explore them further, and be willing to sit with the resulting chaos. Researchers have noticed that the distinguishing characteristic between a good and a poor writer is the ability to tolerate chaos. Neither writer likes it, but while the good writer endures the tension, the poor writer will grasp at the first idea that comes along simply to be rid of the unease. The same, I think, is true of the spiritual journey. Any time we can engage the imagination, there’s the potential for mess and chaos, but also the potential to bump the story out of the rut it’s stuck in.
Another strategy I’ve stumbled upon is to re-write the ending. If I don’t like how I responded to someone, I re-write it. I challenge myself not to stop with merely changing what I said, but to go further and see the experience as a scene with consequences: what will happen next and next and then after that? What if you hadn’t received that wound, been scarred in just that way? Re-write the story so that everything leading up to the injury stays the same, but the injury doesn’t happen. Don’t stop there, because I suspect you’ve already done this step. Go on with the story. Imagine the consequences.
When Melville’s narrator demands that we call him Ishmael, we suddenly realize that he is telling his truth, although indirectly, by linking with another Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham, first born but not the true heir, not the favored son, not the better son. A slave yet more than a slave, he and his mother, Hagar, are driven into the desert alone, exiled, abandoned, condemned to wander far from home—a fate the novel’s narrator feels he shares.
So a third strategy I’ve learned is to connect my personal story with one of the great stories of literature, because when I am able to do so, interesting connections are forged through the imagination. Biblical stories and ancient myths are particularly powerful vehicles for this, one reason being they rarely provide the psychological insights or emotional filler that we’ve come to expect from more contemporary storytellers, thus leaving important gaps which we must fill.
I’ve been reading the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark’s gospel lately, and noticed that even though he begged Jesus to allow him to come along on the journey with the disciples, Jesus told him to go back home, back to the very people who chained him in that graveyard as if he were already dead. What was that like, I wonder. Did his family and neighbors marvel at the miracle and praise God, or did they watch him warily, unwilling to get close emotionally, never trusting him because it would surely be just a matter of time before he snapped and once again hurt them. People don’t really change, you know, I can hear them say behind closed doors. Such gaps in the plot and in the characters’ emotions force us to imagine what is missing, and it is this opening that allows us to examine our own situations within theirs.
Think of the implications of this for the self-awareness that is necessary to understand our lives. After Nouwen wrote The Inner Voice of Love while undergoing six months of spiritual and emotional care, he wrote what I consider his most beautiful book, Return of the Prodigal Son, where he explores his own past by immersing in the parable, in Rembrandt’s painting of the parable, and in Rembrandt’s life. Counting his own biography, he imaginatively mined, compared, and wove together four stories.
Let me give you a personal example. Unfortunately, I had a falling out with some family members. It was a difficult time, very difficult. Now this is going to sound really geeky, but then I am a literature geek: one morning I woke up with Odysseus’ black ship in my head. I began to see my situation as a scene from the Odyssey. The scene I had in mind was when Odysseus had to sail between a rock and a hard place. Rather than take a much longer but safer route, he chose rather arrogantly to navigate between the deadly whirlpool named Charybdis and the rocky lair of the many-headed monster, Scylla. As you’ll recall, he doesn’t make it. Scylla’s heads lunge down and eat some of his crew, his ship gets sucked into Charybdis’ mighty maw and is destroyed, the crew drowned. So I imagined Scylla’s heads bearing the faces of my family members and began to draw in my sketch book a very bleak scene. My ship was going down, caught in the whirlpool of my anger. I wasn’t going to make it either.
Then I remembered the rest of the story. Odysseus nearly drowns, but he does not die. Instead, his clothes are ripped from his body by the currents and he’s swept upon the shores of a beautiful island, naked as a newborn or as a newly baptized neophyte, younger looking and more handsome than before. I know, I want to get ahold of some of those sea salts for my beauty regimen, too. On the island, he is offered a new life with a new and younger wife, a new kingdom to rule, and years of peace without conflict and the suffering conflict engenders. But that is not who he is. He says thanks but no thanks, and returns to his true wife, Penelope, and much conflict and suffering as he reclaims his own kingdom from those who tried to replace him while he was gone. In the far corner of my drawing, I drew myself washed up on a beach.
Identifying my story with Odysseus’ story helped me get unstuck from the details of my experience and express what I had not been able to before. Yet knowing the whole story challenged me to see that I had choices before me. I was not a victim assaulted by invincible monsters or trapped in the watery depths. And because I understood why Odysseus chose to go home, even though he risked life to do it, I became more aware of the options before me and what I needed, what I wanted to do in this situation.
Call me Ishmael. Call me Odysseus. Call me Ophelia or Jack the Giant Killer, Ruth or Naomi. Some have defined humans as creatures who think in stories. Others have said the basis of ministry is not to serve others but to enter into their stories. We could explain the Incarnation as God entering the story of humanity.
Once we enter a story, nothing is ever the same.
Susan Yanos is the author of The Tongue Has No Bone, a book of poems, and Woman, You Are Free: A Spirituality for Women in Luke; and is co-editor and co-author of Emerging from the Vineyard: Essays by Lay Ecclesial Ministers. Her poems, essays and articles have appeared in several journals. A former professor of writing, literature and ministry of writing, she now serves as a spiritual director, retreat leader and freelance editor. She lives with her husband on their farm in east-central Indiana (US), where she creates art quilts and tends to her hens, fruit trees and gardens.
Susan's other work on Foreshadow:
God Who Sent the Dove Sends the Hawk (Poetry, January 2021)
Love Song of the Anawim (Poetry, April 2021)