It’s weird to think that our grandkids and great-grandkids will be able to read our life stories in bits and pieces through Instagram, even if we only post a few times a year. To some extent, it’s no longer novel to be sharing your life story in any sort of formal way because we do it so often in little and big ways online. If anything, we might share too much rather than not enough. But I hope that this reality won’t discourage you from finding your own ways to write down your story in ways that matter to the next generation or that build deeper connections with others. Because once you know someone, that’s when you can really love them better. 

But it’s not just for other people – it’s for you, too. For you to understand yourself better. For you to see the arcs of your story. To see moments of triumph and moments that you needed to grow from. (And the ways that you did. And sometimes still haven’t yet.) How would you answer the 36 Questions prompt “share your life story in 4 minutes”? And how would you do so with Brene Brown-level authenticity to share the whole truth and let that light pervade shame that hides in the corners?

Here are some of the ways I’ve done this surprisingly courage-requiring act of writing, whether for just myself or for others to read too, throughout my lifetime:

  • I’ve journaled. 
  • I’ve done therapy exercises. 
  • I’ve had to write my life story from beginning to present – in 5 pages – and share it with others for an application for my hospital chaplaincy residency.
  • I’ve written pen pal letters (and you can read about my love of them here)
  • I’ve written chapters of a partially autobiographical, partially pastoral care book that I vaguely plan to write and publish at some point. I share one chapter of it in this video.
  • I’ve written and performed a slam poem-like act not unfamiliar with the story-telling podcast “The Moth”.

 

I think of this through many lenses, including:

  • Is this something I will share or is this something I will simply hold close to me?
  • What is the purpose of my writing this? Is it to build connection? Understanding? Share wisdom? 
  • What am I hoping to process?
  • What am I trying to smooth over to make sure I can have a more linear storyline? What griefs are in the shadows that I’m ignoring?

 

One of the things I’m realizing the most over the past two years is how much less control I thought I used to think I had over my life than I actually do. Sometimes, this is a brilliant thing; sometimes, it’s just terrible. (*Gestures vaguely around.*) And yet at the end of it (and even in the beginning and middle of it, too), I’m one who decides the tone in which it is written over time. The tone often changes over time the more it’s written and shared and mulled over and welcomed into my heart and kicked out and welcomed again. 

You do not get to control all of the content, and sometimes, your content will bear the looming nature of regrets. Again, I’m going to reference Brene Brown and say that regrets are not all bad

“I’ve found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.

Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. “No regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life. I’m not suggesting that we have to live with regret, but I do think it’s important to allow ourselves to experience and feel it.”

One of the truest things I’ve ever heard about regret came from George Saunders’s 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University. He said, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

Your story matters. To other people so you can pass down lessons or have someone understand you more or have you understand you more. Do not be afraid to write it down. Do not be afraid to look it in the eye and find people who can help you if it breaks your heart a bit. Life is heart-breakingly, heart-achingly beautiful at times and sometimes, it’s just awful. And yet it’s yours – and the tone is up to you.

Set aside a little time for it on your calendar and keep the date you set for yourself.

Breathe into it as you begin each time. 

Take a pause.

Write for 10 minutes without stopping, without editing.

Enjoy.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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