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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

On a recent trip to Ireland, my host gave me a guided tour of the Belfast murals. A whole section of that city, like Chemainus, the city next door to my town, tells its history in pictorial form: large bright depictions of key events and personages emblazon the sides of buildings. But unlike our sister city, the Belfast story is grim, bloody, and heavily slanted on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. It is a montage of outrage and vendetta, almost entirely preoccupied with the time of the “Troubles,” a nearly 30-year stretch, from 1969 (though with much deeper roots) to 1998 (though with ongoing repercussions), when Catholics and Protestants clashed violently over their very different visions of Ireland’s national identity and destiny. It’s much more complex than that, as any Irishman would be quick to tell you – there are layers upon layers of political, cultural, educational, economic, and class issues involved – but for simplicity’s sake that’s as good a summary as any.

Most of these paintings, both in the Protestant sector and the Catholic one, are freshly done, though the subject matter of most dates back to the 70s. The same meta-narrative is painted and repainted, so that a new generation learns it by heart. Every day, as people walk and drive past, the images of their heroes and martyrs, villains and Judases, loom large, shaping public identity and imagination. The images recall the past, but determine the future.

The story is essentially the same, regardless of which side of the very real divide – a 12-foot-high wall topped with coiled barbed wire – you’re standing on: we are innocent, righteous, and fair, and our enemies are treacherous, evil, and cruel. We love peace and they love war. The Catholics say it about the Protestants, and the Protestants say it about the Catholics.

I found the experience profoundly sobering, how two people can look at a single event and, depending on the accident of their birth, render completely opposite verdicts on it.

And I found sobering the power of story. We are, in many ways, the sum of the stories we tell ourselves. Our sense of who we are – our place in the world, our rightness and virtue, or worthlessness and bad luck, or victimhood, or entitlement – is tied to what story we believe, and the story we believe is the story we keep repeating.

The gospel has been described as a better story than all the ones we might otherwise hear or speak. It is a story grand and sweeping and beautiful – of a God who creates in love and for love, of a creation that rebels and sins and runs away, of a God who pursues his creation to the ends of the earth and gives himself wholly to win her back, and who spares no expense to restore his creation to its original design.

It’s a good story.

The world is trying to tell us a different one, one that diminishes us, confuses us, misleads us, divides us. Let’s resolve to tell ourselves the good story, the gospel story, often enough, vividly enough, truthfully enough, that it displaces all the lesser stories, and shapes who we really are.

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