Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Story of my life

Perhaps because I’m a writer and a lover of literature, it’s been helpful for me to view life in terms of story. I’m a firm believer that, whether we’re aware of it, we all tell ourselves stories about the world and our place in it, and that our view of the world is formed by the particular stories we think we’re in. Are you a hero in an epic adventure, a supporting character in a buddy comedy, or a victim in a tragedy? Your outlook and attitude will be shaped accordingly.

In other words: We have some control — if not over circumstances themselves, then at least over how we frame those circumstances. I will often remind my children of this: “You could tell yourself that everything’s terrible and nobody loves you, or you could tell yourself a different story.” Either way, life will tend to affirm your narrative.

Live with other people long enough, and you may also notice the ways in which our stories bump into each other. Sometimes this works out neatly and we have coauthors and collaborators along for the ride. But sometimes other people may try to cast us in their own stories in roles that we don’t want to — or shouldn’t — play. “Resist being a part of that narrative!” I cautioned my daughter just the other day. 

Again, this framework implies some sense of control: I believe that the stories we tell ourselves shape our life experience, and I believe that we can choose with whom we will collaborate in writing our life stories. Sometimes, I take it even further: When the sun is shining and life is going well, I can often delude myself into believing that, to quote the oft-quoted poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

But every so often — and increasingly, the older I get — events occur that make me question whether I’m the primary author of my own life. I suspect very strongly that I am not. 

This is not a new idea, this sense that we are characters subject to the will of an external author. It’s the assumption of most major world religions. It’s been explored repeatedly in films like The Matrix, Free Guy, and The Truman Show, in which unsuspecting protagonists realize gradually that they’re imprisoned in a virtual reality system, a video game, and a television show (respectively.) Taken to its extreme, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has proposed “the simulation hypothesis:” the idea that our existence is all a simulated reality.

So here is one of the great tensions of being human: We long to assert our freedom and control over our own lives, but we also suspect at some deep level that we may not be ultimately in control at all — which is why we are fascinated with the concepts proposed in The Matrix and the simulation hypothesis. 

In fact, I do more than suspect that I’m not ultimately in control; I have ample evidence of the fact. I have weeks like a recent one, which began, as I was still recovering from a nasty bout with COVID, with the realization that I was completely unable to protect my teenagers from trouble or heartbreak, and ended with my rushing our two-year-old to the ER for the second time in two months as he wheezed from respiratory distress brought on by a simple cold. Never have I felt less in control of anything. 

I didn’t write these events into my story; nor did my teenagers choose their suffering or my toddler choose to wrestle with lungs that don’t always function well. No: These things came crashing into my life much like the stage lighting falling suddenly from the sky in The Truman Show.

This should not surprise me, as a practicing Christian who believes that I am subject to a God who both created the universe and is intimately involved in human lives, but has also given us the ability to choose between good and evil. To be a Christian is to live in the odd tension between having the ability to make choices from a free will — like those narrative choices I encourage my children to make — but also the acknowledgement that I am not the ultimate master of my fate or the captain of my soul: I am subject to a higher power. Sickness, heartbreak, and failing appliances come to us all in time and are beyond our ability to control. And while I might have an outline — even a first draft — for how I think my loved ones’ lives should play out, I have even less control over their stories. There are brief moments when I can make definite choices; most of the time, the only thing I can do is to frame my responses to life as it unfolds. In other words, all my freedom and control amount to a little light editing.

Still, I will forget. After the week I just had, I am looking over my shoulder and acutely aware that all plans must be made with an implicit “IF,” but before long I’ll grow complacent again. Not all weeks are exercises in humility, thank God. 

So I take up my pen now, and I write these words with my own hand. I am choosing these words, giving shape to the thoughts in my head, but I’m also choosing to remind myself that my life is always being ghostwritten. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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