The following is (roughly) the address I gave at this morning’s Sunday Assembly. I fear the end was slightly corny, but I meant well!
I thought I would read a passage from a book I’ve read recently, that has inspired me. The book is called “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas.
“I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel most lost.”
The book is a memoir written by a young American guy who struggled with the high cost of being a student, with feeling shackled by the need to pay back huge student loans, and with the limited prospects for finding meaningful work. The book is about his way out of this situation; about how he found ways to live in line with his values of freedom, integrity, and adventure, to live a good life despite the constraints on him, and it ends up with him going back to university for postgraduate study – and living in a van to be able to stay out of debt.
I found it an interesting read. One thing that stood out to me was that he didn’t always seem to have a great time when he did follow his values or his sense of adventure. It was as if he was driven by a romantic narrative that was a bit more gritty in reality. He took an ill-prepared hike up Blue Cloud mountain in Alaska, and he freely admits this experience was painful and miserable, and only later became a warm and fuzzy memory. It felt good to look back on, because it was the kind of challenge that fitted with the adventurous storyline he wanted to live by. He says:
“When it comes to memories, it seems we all have an editor within who will—if it’ll make for a good story—revise the senseless into symbols, or rephrase miseries into warm memories.”
Maybe following our values and acting along the lines of our chosen stories is something that pays off later on. I don’t think it’s just mental editing after the fact that generates meaning. The experiences themselves are important. We just have to have patience to take the journey and not expect every moment of it to be blissful. Again, to quote from the book:
“… more and more, I began to believe that to live a happy present requires having lived a full past. It requires that we go on our own journey. And if we are so lucky as to reach the end of that tortuous, troubled path, we may be afforded the gleaming vista of self-discovery.”
There’s no getting away from hardship in life. Maybe what matters is where it is leading you; what the purpose is, and whether that is in line with your deepest values, as they emerge along the way.
That’s not to say that happiness is always about looking back over your past. There were some sublime moments for Ken, like the sight of the northern lights in the Alaskan winter sky, and sometimes these moments came unexpectedly. Moments where life feels magical and wonderful are there to be had, and they might always just be moments, but I think we can open ourselves to more of them if we choose to. The Sunday Assembly is all about that! I remember the first time I came to a Sunday Assembly, during the Fringe, the singing had that kind of effect on me. Maybe I just really connected with the particular song, but I was blown away by how good it felt just to sing joyfully with a bunch of other people. I couldn’t wait to get involved. I really hope this will be a place where we all get to have more moments of wonder and joy.