I remember learning about the elements of a story in my elementary school library, looking up at the overhead projector from my little table by the card catalog. We learned that a story has a setting, characters, a plot, a conflict, and a resolution. Nowadays, story has become a bit of a buzzword, as we often discuss how to tell a better story with our lives and write it in a way that draws other people in.
We have a way of connecting with stories that follow this pattern. If I didn’t connect with a good story, I wouldn’t watch so many chick flicks. I wouldn’t get so lost in the conflict, sitting on the edge of my seat wondering will they end up together? I wouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief when the resolution comes, the main characters passionately kiss, and the credits roll to an upbeat pop song. These are the stories we connect with most of all—the stories where the basketball team wins the championship and the guy gets the girl and the “good side” wins the war. We connect with these stories because they have all the necessary elements, the setting, the characters, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.
But sometimes, the stories in our lives have missing pieces. Donald Miller would say “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Often, we are the characters who want something, but the conflict can’t be overcome. We don’t get climactic plot lines or the cathartic resolution we are so eagerly looking for.
It’s like the times I fall in love and hope the other person feels the same way. I want there to be a plot line, I want the other person to take action and do something, but in the end, it’s just dialogue. It’s a few conversations, some melancholy journal entries, and a story written in my head that never comes true.
It’s like the time I interviewed for the perfect job. I imagined what my reaction would be when I got the job offer and planned what I would do with my first paycheck, but then I got the generic rejection letter instead. The story ended before it could even begin.
Or what about the times when we pray for healing, but it never comes? What about the times we pray for a relationship to be reconciled, but forgiveness never happens? No one will be telling those stories on the Hallmark Channel.
These are the stories that are incomplete. When we are talking about unrequited love or missed opportunities or unreached goals or unanswered prayers, there’s no action, no plot line, no resolution easily visible to the outside world. These are the stories we keep to ourselves, the ones we are too embarrassed to talk about. These are the times when others assume we’re not hurting, because there wasn’t an event that caused our pain. And sometimes we don’t tell them we’re hurting, because it seems desperate and childish to want something we can’t have.
So many of my stories don’t have endings, so most of the time it seems like they don’t count. They don’t make sense, they don’t end the way they’re “supposed to” end, so I hide them away. I don’t speak them into existence, but let them stew in my mind until it gets all blocked up with unanswered questions and stories that were never resolved. This is when I become anxious and discontent, because it just seems so unfair not to be telling the story that “should have been”, but instead getting stuck with a story that seems like so much less than what I wanted. It’s frustrating trying to write about my life truthfully when I get caught up thinking that my stories would be so much better if I could have written them myself.
Sometimes, I hear a song that takes my breath away. This summer, the song Emphasis by Sleeping at Last deeply resonated with me. It says:
The smartest thing I’ve every learned is that I don’t have the answers,
just a little light to call my own.
Though it pales in comparison to the overarching shadows,
the speckled light can reignite the sun
and swallow darkness whole.
I listened to this song on high-speed trains across England, and while watching jellyfish from the deck of the ferry on the Irish Sea, and while looking out over the ocean at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, trying to understand why there are so many unfinished stories, so many disappointments, so many “should have beens”.
And do you know what?
I don’t know why.
I can only hope that someday, the sentence fragments and the unfinished stories and the unanswered questions will be a part of something greater. In the mean time, I can’t control other people or play God and make things happen that just weren’t meant to be.
And do you know what else?
I think it’s okay to tell these stories, too. It’s okay to tell the love-that-never-happened stories, the I-don’t-know-why stories, and the should-have-been-different stories. It’s okay to ask why, even if we can never answer our own questions. Maybe someday we’ll get the resolution, but today, it’s okay to be un-resolved.