narrative

But What Are We Growing For?

The way you read a book is framed by what type of thing you think it is. As a literary scholar recently demonstrated, if you put random words on a board and then tell the students it is poetry, they will have no trouble coming up with poetic interpretations of its meaning.

The way you interpret the events in life, too, is framed by what type of stories your culture tells and what type of narrative you use to make sense of those events. If we believe each event in life is part of a particular type of poem, we will have no trouble interpreting the poem as we’ve been trained to do.

A few years ago I was working as the newsletter editor at a Unitarian church. I happened to be working in a time of staff reorganization. The highly active volunteer church board had posted its goals and objectives around the church. All of the objectives were based on the idea of growth. We needed to do x, y, and z in order to grow.

What struck me at the time was that there was no explanation of why we needed to grow. Why was a larger membership needed? What could we do with more people that we could not do at our present size?

Presumably no one thought such an explanation was needed. It was simply understood that bigger was better. That growth was success and attrition was failure. (This push, incidentally, corresponded to a period of declining population in my home state of Michigan.)

Of course there might be reasons to worry if you found you had a mass exodus of members. That might be a sign that you were not meeting the needs of the congregation. The question of size, though, struck me as one step removed from the real mission, to serve people’s needs and to give the community a reason to congregate regardless of how many showed up.

At the time, I had the impression that our focus on numbers was a symptom of a bottom line business mentality that was permeating everything in life. This is how I framed a similar push for church growth in my novel Angel:

Paul had nothing against growth, per se. It would be good for his ego, certainly, to see the pews full each Sunday. But he was uncomfortable with the implication that worship was a product to be marketed the same way you’d sell a soft drink or a pair of designer jeans. It seemed that the entire culture had become permeated with a marketplace mentality and that church should be the exception. Once, people had viewed commerce through the lens of faith. Now it seemed people viewed faith through the lens of commerce. Instead of arranging their lives to live in accordance with their faith, they went “church shopping” to find a faith that fit their lifestyle. Something had been lost, Paul believed, yet he realized there was really no way to turn back the clock.”

Lately, though, I’ve come to think that our marketplace mentality comes to us naturally because of some older biases in our thought. I have been reading a book called The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbet. In it, Nisbet contrasts the way people in the east and west view various aspects of life. Here in the West we tend to view time as a straight line. We think of our lives as progressing along that line. Whereas in the East they view life more like a circle. They view life as constant change but always curving back to some prior state. I think of this as a symphony with a recurring musical motif.

When you think of history as a straight line there are only two ways to move, you can go forward (progress) or back (regress). Thus, if you are not always moving forward, you are falling behind. You must grow or perish.

This is a story that is told in one way or another all our lives. The book The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham talks about the value of the Alcoholics Anonymous storytelling style, which they define as “what we used to be like, what happened, and where we are now.”

The metaphor is of a journey out of darkness into which, presumably, we will not return. This is the same type of story we hear on every biography program. Here was the star’s rise, then the star had problems, but now they have recovered and, presumably, will live happily ever after.

I wonder, though, how we might deal with our ups and downs if we saw them not on a straight line but as recurring motifs in a symphony? Would we define success differently? Would it be easier to cope with hardships if we saw them as part of a cycle, like rising and falling tides rather than as a wind that blew us off horribly off our course?

The stories we tell are important.

(This post originally appeared in 2011 on the blog of Fighting Monkey Press)

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