Have you read Phyllis Tickle’s The Shaping of a Life: A Spiritual Landscape? I didn’t know it, but my soul wanted this book. And I’ve only read three chapters! From the very first page I felt I was drinking from a cup of perfectly chilled water, its river rushing through my being with life and refreshment.
This satisfied feeling is easily contrasted to it’s empty counterpart: web surfing. You know that feeling, right? It is already late, you should have accomplished a million other things tonight, but instead you are still click-click-clicking through random links on blogs, Facebook pages, and shopping sites. For some crazy reason when I get in that mode, I actually imagine that the answer to my current dream or dilemma might very likely be found in my next click. And so I keep clicking. Usually this leaves me only with a sleepy regret of wasted time and another day coming without promising anything more substantial.
I have associated this dissatisfaction with a spiritual hunger that can never be fully satisfied in this life. And I still think that is true, but Tickle’s spiritual autobiography offers another suggestion that seems even more applicable. She describes the shared conventions among her regional ancestors (from the Scotch-Irish and Native American legacies) that were integral in the shaping of her childhood experiences:
. . . . Not the least among these was the belief that for every child there was an appointed narrative, a story that would unlock life for him or her. Like a totem, the story would be for one’s whole life an identity, an explanation, and an enduring tool. Without such a narrative, one would be forever confined to a stumbling confusion and a wearying poverty of spirit. The work of childhood was to discern one’s narrative, and the work of the adult community was to provide an abundance of possibilities from which each of us might choose.
I find myself in both of these categories: wondering if I could name my totem-story from childhood and also accepting my responsibility as a parent. I don’t worry that I have not provided these opportunitees, instead, I recognize how very hard we all try to engage with them in our everyday lives. I don’t necessarily think that my son is going to be a major league baseball player, but what if baseball is part of his totem-story, a way that he makes sense out of this life or a passion that at least offers him positive focus during the tumultuous years of adolescence? I know Claire won’t be a world-class equestrian, but what if horseback riding lets her fly across fields in a way that her compromised physical body never could. What if this is her place of solace and comfort?
So we spend too many nights in the month of June eating sandwiches out of a cooler and playing hours and hours of baseball. We schedule swimming lessons and music lessons. We research community theater and consider after-school tutoring. I know all of this can be over-done and twisted into torture for a child, but today I’m struck by the genuinely inspired intentions of our parental hovering.
In the end, Tickle’s totem-story turned out to be the Christian gospel. Confined to her bed during a childhood illnes, she was fascinated by reading the Old Testament story of Moses holding up the bronzed serpent that the Israelites had only to look up to and be saved from the venomous serpents all around them. As she grew into adulthood, she learned more from the New Testament Gospel of John: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The verses that follow these are the most recognized in the Bible: “For God so loved the world . . . ” A connection was made for Tickle that guided the rest of her life. (Side note: This material has tons of talking points for the theologians among us. What an incredible association between our disease and our remedy!)
I suppose what I’ve gleaned so far from Tickle’s lovely book is that my desire for my children to find their totem-stories is noble, but they are just as likely to find it during a simple afternoon of reading as from a packed schedule of events. Of course I won’t stop looking for opportunities, but I’ll also be comforted by the perfect grace and timing of God. After all, he tells really great stories.