I love the movie As Good As It Gets. I love the characters, I love the dysfunction, I love the honesty, I love the bittersweet comedy.
And I love the quotable writing.
There’s a scene where Greg Kinnear’s character begins to open up to Helen Hunt as she and Jack Nicholson are driving the trio from New York to Baltimore. Hunt’s character pulls the car over to give Kinnear’s character her full, undivided attention.
She wants to honor his story.
Hunt tells Nicholson, “We all have these terrible stories to get over,” but Nicholson interrupts her.
“Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes, with boats, and friends, and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that’s their story; good times, noodle salad.”
I love listening to people’s stories. I always have.
The highlights of my childhood are woven together by the many threads of the stories of my relatives, told to me across a Parcheesi board, overhead during a card game, stories that took place during a time when men would walk miles every morning in the darkness to descend further into the darkness of coal mines, when girls would return home from school one day to find that they’d never go to school again but would instead begin work on a factory floor the next day.
Our lives are made up of these stories.
There are the stories that flow easily, that work their way into our conversations appropriately, casually. Our first date. How we selected the college we attended. The night we proposed. The moment we discovered we were expecting.
Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes, with boats, and friends, and noodle salad. Just no one in this car.
But there are also the stories that are murky at best, told only many years later as we try to piece together truths that have long been unspoken.
In the recovery process, I learned to listen to my own story, all of it, the complete balance of what I have experienced. And I have listened to countless stories of others, stories that gutted me, that kept me up at night, that made something deep down in my being ache over the pain people inflict on one another.
There have been days when my life has felt like nothing but good times and noodle salad.
And there have been moments when my journey required all that I could muster just to take the next step forward.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we come to be who we are. I believe with everything inside of me that the way we respond to the situations we’ve experienced only partly depends on the details of those situations. I know that I’ve been shaped by my brain chemistry, for example, by my natural inclination toward big emotion, anxiety, joy, depression, excitability, and deep, deep love. I know also that I’ve been shaped by trauma, by death, by grief, by chronic illness and pain. And I know that I’ve been shaped by the constant presence of family who loves me and the assurance of a God who stands by me and with me.
My brother and I have discussed our childhood and while he doesn’t always remember the details in the same way, he has given me the gift of saying he understands my perspective and what shaped it. I have also listened repeatedly to my father share a story from his childhood followed immediately by my aunt saying she can’t recall or relate in any way to what he’s just shared. My husband and his sister? Apart from their red hair, opposites in every way.
Surely there is more than just birth order or sibling gender at play in these differing recollections.
I have shared my stories and received in response the assurance that this is all normal, standard fare, life being life. And I have shared those same stories to others who have cried with me and assured me instead that these things were far from normal, not okay, not acceptable nor commonplace.
At the end of the day, I believe we’ve all got to honor our own stories and how they’ve shaped us. We’ve all got the kind of story that requires us to pull the car over to the side of the road and acknowledge the gravity of the pain and the suffering and the courage inside of us. And we’ve all got stories of good times and noodle salad.
But after honoring and processing our stories, we all need to answer this question for ourselves: And then what?
It is up to us to decide who we want to be on the other side of it all and what we want to do with those stories. For me, everything changed when I added recovery to my story. I learned that…
We have the opportunity every day to create a new past. When you wake up tomorrow, today will have become part of your past, another page in your story. Each day is a chance to try again, and as trite as that sounds, it is still the truth. When I began attending recovery meetings, I was overwhelmed. I cried a lot in those meetings. A LOT. My most recent past at that time was defined by grief and loss, regret, shame and embarrassment. But somehow, one day at a time, I have reached five years of recovery. Instead of being defined by my hurts and hang-ups, my story is now one of transformation, redemption, and hope.
We get to choose how we respond to what has happened to us. This truth has been a difficult one for me to process, accept, and eventually embrace. I don’t believe that we have control over how we feel, and I don’t believe that it’s healthy to repress our feelings. Repressing feelings rather than processing them is how many of us end up sitting in recovery meetings with tears running down our faces. If you punch me in the face, I am going to cry and feel anger and pain. That just is what it is. But my “and then what” is whether or not I punch you back. It is whether or not I worry that every person I meet will someday punch me in the face, too. It is whether not I decide to no longer leave the house in case someone decides to punch me in the face again. My story changed dramatically when I began to trust that I could respond differently now than how I responded in the past, both to the pain of my past as well as the challenges I face day to day.
We can decide which stories to continue and which stories to end. I am a person who struggles with change and with endings. I do not do well with giving up, and changing boundaries in my life often feels like giving up. Early in my recovery I had to make the decision to end something very important to me. To be boldly honest, I had to walk away from what I believed at the time was God’s calling for my life. It was a stunningly difficult decision that I made in prayer with a couple people close to me. And something remarkable happened the moment the decision was made. I felt free. That story was not a safe or a healthy story for me to continue in, and once I knew that, my “and then what” was to walk away from it. That is our choice and a source of our power.
It is our choice what we do with our pain. Before recovery, I buried my pain in anger, I hid it in unhealthy coping strategies, I denied it with humor, I overpowered it with achievement. Now I work through it with honesty, giving it the time and space it requires.
We all have stories of good times and noodle salad. And we all have stories that make us cry. I am grateful for the “and then what” that comes next.
Thank you for letting me share.