The power of stories
We need stories for our times of uncertainty and pain, says Tanya Marlow
“Once upon a time,” I read aloud to my baby boy: “there was a poor widow.” My six-month-old boy lay next to me in the big double bed as we turned the pages of a Ladybird book together. Also on the bed was a bumblebee mobile, a playmat, some wooden shapes, cuddly toys galore and a stack of other books. The bed was our life-raft in a sea of uncertainty.
We all have experiences of loss or limitation – and this time of global crisis has certainly contributed towards many. Mine is caused by severe myalgic encephalomyelitis, a disease characterised by extreme physical weakness, pain, susceptibility to viruses, difficulty thinking, speaking and moving. It’s made worse by over-exertion, and the effort of labour left me bedbound. Ten years on, I still need to be lying in bed 21 hours a day and, apart from twice-monthly trips out in a wheelchair, my house is my world. While toys have come and gone, an ever-changing stack of books has helped keep me afloat.
STORIES FOR UNCERTAINTY
Which books help us through a time of uncertainty or loss? Initially, we want instructional books that tell us ‘how to’. We scour articles on top tips for coping, and we find it hard to concentrate on anything other than the immediate. If you’re still in this stage, I recommend the hidden gem Book of Hours by Jamie Wright Bagley, which gives beautiful short prayers for getting you through each day, Malcolm Guite’s poetry, or Broken Hallelujahs (Inter-Varsity Press) by Beth Allen Slevcove, which helps you process grief, large and small. After this stage comes the long wilderness, which could also be named the ‘bewilderness’, as the confusion stretches into months of wondering when life will return to normal, or if normal exists anymore.
Then, we need stories. Society often frowns on stories as mere escapism or for children only. Many adults only read instructional nonfiction. But memoir and fiction have therapeutic and character-building attributes. GK Chesterton was once comparing modern literature to classic tales and complained: “wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But [modern books] made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary.” Some magazines give us extraordinary, shiny celebrities who tell stories of washing their hair ‘just like us’; some kids’ books offer fashionable rainbow unicorns who nevertheless get anxious about being popular. Classic children’s fiction, in contrast, knows that in extraordinary times, it’s ordinary people who become heroes.
This, then, is what I first turn to – the wisdom of children’s fiction, which is too good not to re-read in adulthood. From Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (HarperCollins), ordinary Samwise resists extraordinary temptation for power through putting others first. Frodo has taught me, with tears, that although we all experience the same event, some return from battle with celebration and popularity while others are forever haunted by the trauma. I’ve returned to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women like sitting by a cosy fire, and during my most recent reading I was struck by how Marmee was once short-tempered like Jo but learned over years of perseverance to control her tongue. By fighting evil alongside hobbits I remember the bigger picture; by laughing at Meg’s vanities, I’m made aware of my own. These Christian writers show me again the value of pursuing holiness, honing my character with God’s help over time.
STORIES FOR ISOLATION
Which stories help when you’re isolated? When I started Julian of Norwich (Paraclete Press) by Amy Frykholm, the only thing I knew of Julian was the “All shall be well” inspirational quote, cross-stitched to hang upon bathroom walls. But Frykholm retells Julian’s story like a novel, interweaving her life vividly with her theology. Julian of Norwich was an ordinary Christian living in plague times who had a close encounter with death – and Christ. Before I was ill, I had been a full-time Christian minister. I mourned the job I had loved. Julian of Norwich, however, ministered from a locked-in room adjacent to a church, called an ‘anchorage’, from which people heard her wisdom. From the unlikeliest of places I had found a new model of housebound ministry and wise words of comfort from someone who truly knew suffering.*
STORIES FOR BROKEN DREAMS
What should we read when our career plans and dreams have fallen apart? In The Making of Us (Thomas Nelson), I walked alongside Sheridan Voysey through the pilgrimage trails of Northern England, while he and his best friend faced the elements and laid bare their souls. In it, I found a companion who thoughtfully looked upon the lowest moments of his life and found God’s grace. Micha Boyett once wanted to be a missionary and do big things for God but lost her identity in the mundanity of motherhood. In Found by Micha Boyett (Worthy Books) I shared in her ministry grief, her weariness as her toddler accidentally smashed the toilet lid hard over her head, and her restoration through Benedictine rhythms of prayer, finding beauty in the ordinary.
STORIES FOR SUFFERING
What about ongoing suffering? I looked to Sarah Bessey, whose story Miracles and Other Reasonable Things (DLT) explores the paradox of believing in a God who heals, but not always; Alia Joy whose story Glorious Weakness (Baker Books) begins with abuse and poverty, continues with bipolar disorder and gives Christ glory; and Pete Greig, who wrestles with unanswered prayer in God on Mute (Kingsway Publications). I found beautiful hope in severely disabled teenager Jonathan Bryan’s Eye Can Write (Lagom) and witty theology in Kate Bowler’s memoir of Stage IV cancer: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (SPCK).
STORIES FOR THE SILENCE
Where do we go when God seems silent and our life is stuck on hold? For that, I delved deep into the Bible stories themselves. Too often we see Bible characters as shiny celebrities of saintliness. Actually, they were ordinary people, broken by waiting, honoured by God. I entered into Sarah’s story, she was mistreated by her husband in Egypt and her promised family came only after decades of disappointment. I stepped into Isaiah’s shoes and found a prophet frustrated by people who refused to listen. John the Baptist lost his ministry and was imprisoned for perhaps two years, not knowing if he would be released or die.
God loved them. I researched, consumed and digested their lives, tenderly rewriting their stories as a devotional book, Those Who Wait (Malcolm Down) – but it’s as fair to say that their stories rewrote me.
Today, as I write, I put the finishing touches to a book proposal for my own ordinary story of non-healing, living in uncertainty, loved by God. Our stories matter. They may well become a life-raft for others. Let’s treasure them.
Tanya Marlow is a pastoral theologian, speaker and author of Those Who Wait. You can get her first book for free from tanyamarlow.com
*learn more about Juliet of Norwich on p34 of the issue
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