Why Facts Never Tell The Real Story

By Sam Jolman | May 29, 2012

“Things are not all so comprehensible and utterable as people would mostly have us believe; most events are unutterable, consummating themselves in a sphere where word has never trod.” Rilke

If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” Romans 8:27

Its Christmas time, our first holiday as an engaged couple.  Amanda and I just spent a lazy week soaking in the sun of Florida with her family.  We ate buckets of shrimp, took a lot of naps on the pure white beaches, let our bodies inhale and exhale lots of needed rest.  And now we were sitting on the plane breathing our last bits of Florida air, prepping for takeoff, preparing for our return to normal life.

You need to know something about me: I loved to fly.  The perspective, the vistas, the symbolic nature of travel.  You know the saying: Life’s not a destination, its a journey.  Well, nothing captured that notion for me more than flying.  There with my window seat view of the world, I’d put on my headphones and pull out my journal and dream.  My heart soared.

Sitting on the tarmac in Florida, I had that same warm feeling anticipating the flight to come.  Out my window, the sunset glow pierced through an evening thunderstorm on the horizon.  Beautiful.  The captain broke my serenity with a crackle of the intercom. “Ladies and gentleman, thanks for your patience.  We’re waiting for the green light from the control tower.  They’re making sure this storm veers away from our path.  Once we know more, I’ll let you know.  And we should be in the air soon.”

Though I like flying, I despise runway sitting like the rest of us.  I sighed with the whole plane.  But soon enough, we were cleared for takeoff and that ever so exciting moment of full throttle engine thrust had us airborne.

As we eased higher, I was aware that no visible remnant of the sunset could be seen.  We were engulfed in a full fledged thunderstorm, lightning and all.  It was a rush. The plan was pitching a little bit, the captain fighting to keep her steady as she goes. And then a burst of white light lit up the cabin bright as noonday sun.  And the plane literally dropped, a free fall.  A hundred vertical feet before it found buoyancy again.  We all screamed in unison as we came crashing back to our seats.  And I found my heart sitting in my throat.

I was terrified. Traumatized. I look back now and see that I had a panic attack.  But it felt more like a javelin was thrust square in my chest.  I gripped my seat with eagles claws for the rest of that flight.  When we landed, my brother in law got off the plane laughing, saying it felt like a roller coaster to him.  And Amanda was fine too.

Same event, different experience.  So what happened to me? Why did this event shake me to my core?  Answering this question taught me a lot about the nature of story and the meaning of life.

One thing was absolutely clear: The events of our life cannot be boiled down to facts.  If you want to understand your story, you cannot treat your story objectively.  Life just doesn’t come to us this way.  We don’t live it like “This happened then this happened then this happened.”  We may talk about it afterwards like this.  But the experience is much different.  Actual life comes to us through our senses and feelings.  We taste it, touch it, hear it, breath it deep inside. We feel the events of our lives before we ever think about them or reflect on them.

That’s why feelings matter so much. They are the raw data of life, the raw data of our stories.  The facts of a story are more like the props on a stage.  They give us context and that’s it.  They tell us nothing of an events importance to your life.  We don’t know what it meant for your heart that it happened. And this heart meaning is found in your emotional experience.

This is why comparing your life to anyone else is dangerous.  Life is a deeply subjective and personal experience. “Oh, but so many people have it so much worse.”  I hear this in my office almost every day from clients as I offer compassion for the painful events of their lives.  And its hard to argue with it because its probably true.  Queue the starving children in Africa slideshow.  Yes, these children have it very bad.  My heart has been split open by the starvation in the Horn of Africa right now.

Yet what follows is, “So what do I have to complain about?  My problems aren’t that big a deal.”  Its a pitch that would make any salesman proud.  And its a serious form of minimization.  It reduces the events of our life down to a series of facts on a paper.  So why do so many people do this?  Put simply, it keeps us from having to deal with our pain and the mysterious realm of the heart.  Remember, how my brother in law laughed during the same event that sent me into a tailspin?  When I heard this I was tempted to beat myself up for not being strong like him.  It would have been much easier than trying to wrestle out what happened inside of me.

Pain is pain.  If you think about it, how could comparing your pain to someone else’s worse pain or less pain do anything to take away yours?  It can’t.  Author Jan Meyers Proett says so profoundly, “I have learned it is not helpful to compare our own suffering with the suffering of others.  If the baseline for our suffering is not the suffering of others, but Eden, then we can be kind to ourselves for the way we, too, suffer in this world.” Yes, we all live east of Eden and so we all suffer in the world.

Comparison is only good if it leads to gratitude, not minimization.  Only once you’ve been “aquainted with your grief” and truly honored your own suffering can you begin to use comparison as means to gratitude.  Only then can you truly be grateful you are not a starving child in Africa.

And now we have come full circle. What I want to make clear is that to honor your suffering is to honor the emotional experience of your story.  You must get beyond the facts of an event to the feelings.  And that’s where you’ll find the meaning, the true story of your life.  That’s where you’ll discover how your experiences have shaped you.  As John Eldredge has said, “The truest story of any person is the journey of his heart.”

Here is an example.  Imagine with me a young boy who is hit by his father in a moment of rage.  The boy’s warm stinging red cheek may linger an hour or a day.  But what it meant for his heart that his father hit him will last much, much longer.  It may mean his father is no longer a safe person to depend on.  Factually, he got a swollen cheek.  Emotionally, he lost his dad.

Let me reassure you, its not easy getting to this heart meaning.  If life comes to us first in our feelings, then it comes without words.  No one is there to narrate for us.  As the Poet Rainer Rilke says, “Most events are unutterable, consummating themselves in a sphere where word has never trod.”  That makes the meaning of any event out of reach at first, locked up in our feelings.   The authors of the book A General Theory of Love explain that literally, “The neural systems responsible for emotion and intellect are separate, creating the chasm between them in human minds and lives.”

Putting words to the emotional experience of our stories is how we bridge this chasm and uncover this meaning.  Dan Allender describes emotion as the “language of the heart.”  I love this!  It gives such dignity to emotion.  And as with all foreign languages, it must be translated to be understood.  That’s what telling your story is about: translating your heart’s emotional experience.  As author Frederick Buechner says, “I find I need to put things to words before I can believe they are entirely real.”

Back to me and that plane flight: I walked away from that experience baffled.  I knew something deep had been shaken in me – something symbolic, something with great meaning, a meaning that neither my wife nor her brother experienced.  The months that followed set me on a journey with my heart, to go that wordless place and make sense of it.

And life got a lot worse before it got better.  The more I visited with the fear, the more afraid I became.  A pervasive fear of dying became an unwelcome, unruly companion in my life.  I believed I would die at any moment.  I actually wrote a goodbye letter to Amanda in my journal, knowing that someone would surely search through my things after I died and give it to her.

And that’s the meaning that started to bubble up into words.  Remember I said I was engaged at the time?  I was really afraid of the risk of marrying Amanda, of putting my heart on the line more.  Don’t get me wrong; this had very little to do with Amanda.  I loved Amanda immensely.  It was the whole giving all of myself to someone else thing.  That life long commitment meant my heart was more vulnerable in this world.  I could get hurt a lot more.  I could have my heart broken.  That was the meaning in the emotion.  And naming it, putting words to it helped me know how to deal with it, how to enter it, and dispelled the power of the fear.

Your feelings tell your real story.  That’s where you must listen if you are ever to know the truth of your life.

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