Who Tells Your Story?

Last month, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, sent off Penn’s class of 2016 by sharing two stories from his own life. Stories, in fact, were the main theme of Miranda’s speech. The motif came as no surprise to anyone who has seen or heard Hamilton. The musical is haunted by the refrain, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Miranda’s speech was simply a variation on this theme, during which he concluded, “Your stories are essential…They are the stories in which you figure out who you are.”

Yet despite his preoccupation with the theme of stories and storytelling, Miranda was never entirely clear on what he meant by “our stories” or what the significance of storytelling in general might be. Miranda vacillated between two main notions of “our stories.” In the first meaning, a story is a euphemism for a life, so that anyone’s story is simply the unfolding of their life. Miranda’s second, more engaging, use of the term story referred to the narratives that we create and believe about ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. I’d like to consider more carefully Miranda’s treatment of this second conceptualization of stories and to embellish on how we figure out who we are through our own stories and the stories of others.

Miranda’s characterization of the relationship between stories and self-knowledge is incomplete. In fact, we often completely fail to know ourselves in our own stories (using the second definition). Miranda’s assertion is at best dissonant with the stories he told in his speech. Take, for example, Miranda’s first story. A brief summary: During Miranda’s college years, he developed severe shoulder pain. When he at last visited a doctor, he was informed that he didn’t have any shoulder problems, just a nervous tick that was causing the pain. The doctor proceeded to inquire after the potential causes of the tick. Eventually, it became clear that Miranda’s stress surrounding his romantic and academic life, resulting from the pressure he felt to be good and successful, was the source of the tick. Said Miranda, “The story I had been telling myself…was being physically rejected by my body.” Miranda recalled that another story was needed to free him from his own story—in this case, that of composer Giuseppe Verdi, whose experience with pain freed Miranda from his old story. Verdi’s story liberated Miranda to experience pain and failure, and assured him that he could redeem his experiences through art.

Neither Miranda’s experience with Verdi’s story nor its effect on his life is unique. The attempt to live the perfect life, to write the perfect script for our lives, rarely leads to true self-discovery. For Miranda, rigid adherence to his own story fomented self-delusion rather than self-knowledge. Later, in describing his defense of Nina – the protagonist of Miranda’s other musical, In the Heights – Miranda emphasized the importance of hearing stories that broaden our perspective while resonating with our experiences. Miranda’s suggestion that we achieve self-knowledge through our own stories is incomplete. Rather, it is in the stories of others that we truly begin to really know ourselves.

What about stories gives them this power over our lives? In the book of Joshua in the Bible, there is a story about the people of Israel, who needed to cross the Jordan River to enter the land promised them by God. The passage recounts how the Lord dried the ground of the Jordan for Israel to pass over. After the people had safely crossed the river, God told Joshua to pile stones on the riverbanks in remembrance of what He had done. As so often, this command to action came with a reason:

“When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”1

These stories of institution and remembrance are prevalent in Christian Scripture. The God of the Bible recognizes the storyteller in each of us, and is Himself a storyteller. Miranda asserts the importance of stories, and seems to see their value as deriving from how they shape our self-knowledge. Miranda’s abiding respect for the power and value of storytelling is repeatedly affirmed in Scripture. From the institution of Passover to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the God of the Bible masterfully employs stories. These stories are never idle. Stories—in Scripture, in Miranda’s speech, in life—give us a script for conducting our lives and a lens for viewing the world. In the passage from Joshua, the story was passing over the Jordan on dry ground. The script is fear, obedience, and love. The lens is knowledge of the Lord’s might and faithfulness. A story, both through script and lens, directly affects how the hearers live.

Given the role of stories in each of our lives as lens and script for living, and given that we can not achieve robust self-knowledge based solely on our own stories, it seems that stories themselves, from the fairytale to the epic poem, are actually deeply important. The stories that we take in and assimilate profoundly affect who we admire, how we behave, and who we desire to be, to say nothing of how they shape our outlook on the rest of the world. With all of this in mind, I’d like to return to Miranda’s persistent question: Who tells your story?

Who tells your story, Penn students? What narratives have your ear? In our cutthroat daily races, we hear the imperative: achieve. In TV shows, at career fairs, in our classrooms, we are daily offered the glamorized narrative of Harold J. Abrahams in Chariots of Fire: We all believe to some extent that Penn has offered us ten lonely seconds to prove the worth of our existence. But when we look around us, at our own self-esteem, at the atomization of the University community, even at Penn’s mental health epidemic, is that really the final story we want to hear? Is it the final story we want to tell?

The deepest, richest, and most life-giving story that I have ever encountered is the Gospel. It the only story in which I find the balance between shame and love, between drive and contentment, between beauty and pain, and a multitude of other irreconcilables. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story with a protagonist whom I could wish to imitate in all things. When I think about the lens and script which come from the Gospel of Christ, I see a life and a story that I desire to live and to tell. Whatever your current stories, Penn students, seek out the narratives that provide you with the lens and the script to meet the world with grace. Therefore, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”2 And see how it changes your story.

 

1. Joshua 4:21-24, ESV

2. Philippians 4:8, ESV

Connie Miller is a rising junior studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, who has been transformed by numerous stories. Wilde and Austen placed an eternal smirk on her face at a young age, and Dante placed visions of cosmic symbolism in her head. To allow for easy categorization, she identifies as a Ravenclaw, a Hobbit, a Narnian, and a daughter of God.  

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