The Whole Story: On Remembering and Resolving Gently

This day – New Year’s Eve – is tempting in its promises. 

Tomorrow I will begin the life I have been aching for, kind of tempting. Tomorrow I will become more like (insert person you admire), and less like the worst version of me. Tomorrow I will present myself differently, and they will take me seriously. 

And we shame the New Year’s resolution as a social institution, then secretly harbour our own desperate wishes for blessings and health and attention and change as the clock ticks over – as if between Christmas and New Year we have assessed how little Santa/our loved ones could do for us, and realise we must procure the ‘right’ gifts ourselves. That no-one else can give us morality or cleanliness or organisational skills or fitness. That we are the ones lacking. That we are the reason Christmas day felt empty. That we must discipline out our most shameful parts – being angry, lonely, apathetic, jealous, lazy or hungry (for something, anything) – in search of peace and perfection. We decide to change. To be better. 

But just like the stuff we received a few days ago, the elusive mistress of change doesn’t necessarily make us happy either. It is, like the former, a temporary drug to satisfy a deeper longing. Conviction and humility are beautiful and necessary, but shame – and the urges that come from shame – are not.  A quick injection of change distracts us from the pain, but it doesn’t heal the wound.  

This year’s ending is particularly reflective for us all, because we enter a new decade tomorrow. A new decade! A new zero! There is a lot of comparison from 2010 to 2019, a lot of listing of achievements and learnings and milestones and traumas, a lot of before and after photos. I’m into all of it. 2010 fashion is concerning to me now (those side fringes and fedoras on the men?!), but hey, we’ve evolved beautifully into some weird-ass tracksuit and sneaker phase. It’s fascinating watching people grow, and also perceive their own growth. We all understand that it is painful but liberating to retread the decisions of a younger self – decisions you had no idea would yield the results that they did.  

I should know. I spent the past two years writing and releasing an intimate account of some very strange things that happened to me within this decade that I felt I wanted to share publicly. The process was excruciating, but the overall experience of publishing the book was extraordinary. I feel pretty acquainted with the process of immersing myself into the past in order to pave a future, but it’s not without lessons learned.  

I had to discover that there were safe and unsafe ways to remember. Safe and unsafe ways to form story. That there were always multiple perspectives, truths and narratives at play in any memory I claimed as mine. That my story will always belong to me, yes, but it isn’t mine alone. I have lived interdependently, connected to many other people. The decisions that may have changed my life, may also have changed theirs, too – for better or worse. This is not a shameful thing. In fact, it is freeing. It is a process of relinquishing, including, and reconciling. The people that I remember as the heroes in my greatest love stories or heartbreaks don’t necessarily see our time in the same way. People I might expect to spit at the mention of my name, might actually recall me with gentleness and respect. The unique situation I found myself in, was that I received direct feedback from these people of my past when they read the words I submitted to them. It was harrowing, and healing. The memories I thought condemned me as unfit for humanity are the same ones that qualified me for the reception (and therefore distribution) of grace.  

Just as I cannot know the memory of others, or through what lens they choose to recall the past, I realised through the book’s process that I too can remember and write through a diverse number of lenses. The lens of judgement/atonement, the lens of justification and denial, the lenses of hope, or victimhood, or anger or political correctness or flattery or forced forgiveness. But when it came to finally editing the book, and the thousands of words I had gathered together as my remembering, the lens I was forced to edit through was actually compassion 

Compassion for my younger self, and compassion for the Others, too. Forced, because bitterness and shame do not beget the beauty of the truth. The arc of my story, my learning and growing only worked in the light of the redemptive narrative. The truth could only come out in compassion. It was only visible in a world where the suffering was correlational to the flourishing. Compassion maintained that yes, people do hurt people, and willingly disregard their own value, and sometimes endure extraordinary and unfair trauma… but they can heal, they can learn, and they can be restored into wholeness. We aren’t born our ‘child of God’ selves. We become them. The mistakes I made, and the mistakes made against me were not necessarily inevitable, but they were never wasted. They were used as a radical and rare medium to create something new.  

This perspective helped me turn particular past years of my life into story, yes, but as I learn the slow, forming ways of God I also learn how much this is applicable in the present, too. Hindsight is 2020, right? It’s so easy to criticise or forgive my naïve past self. The present self – not so much. The present self is fraught with ego, and stimulus, and confusing desires in multiple directions. The present self does not know how the current trials fit into the story yet. Does not know the outcome of the various decisions I am making.  

My past two years were not remembered and reflected upon and covered in the book, they were simply lived – and of course they have been the hardest, most frightening, and riskiest years of all. Marriage and parenthood have ripped me beyond any illusion of ‘having-it-togetherness’ or dependability for anyone other than immediate family. Heck, it’s ripped away the illusion that I can be dependable and loving and gracious toward immediate family too. All control I thought I had over my own life has proven to be a façade. When I became a partner to another human being, and a parent to a very new human being, my individualistic lifestyle and all it afforded me turned to dust in my hands. My physical capacity diminished, my emotional capacity fortified but focused in, and it seemed very few people (other than mothers) understood the new being I had to become. I have felt so much shame about the career goals, friendships, and opportunities that have fallen through my fingers due to creating and prioritising a family. The shame comes quietly at first – a little whisper in the face of others’ success, saying ‘What have you done?’ A little tickle, when someone has hurt me inexplicably – ‘That was your fault for not being there for them.’ The loudest voice in rejection or loneliness or chronic pain – ‘This is what you deserve.’ I know this voice. I know its lies, and I know how to combat them – after all, I chose to prioritise my family’s development and health, and do not regret it. But in the present moment, there is a moment where I believe it, and I seek a form of comfort from the shame – comfort it can never give me. I seek some sort of answer, some way to change myself, to alter my outcomes, to fix what I must have broken. Tell me what I’ve done wrong. Tell me how bad I really am. Tell me how to atone for this.  

This is where compassion has entered, when I have allowed it. Where gentle hands have held my impulses down, and a voice I recognise has begun to whisper the truth through a different lens. Through a loving and understanding lens. A much wider lens, as it turns out.  

These past two years are not being crafted into art, but these have been the years where I had had the most need of a compassionate narrative, one that sees my shortcomings and failures in the full light of eternity, and says ‘This too will become something beautiful within you.’ Because it always, always does.  

I share this, not to demonstrate my own great learnings, but as a confession and invitation into radical compassion, instead of secret resolutions of morality, beauty, and achievement. The very act of reflecting on the past decade through a lens of compassion – searching for the redemptive narrative – can unlock a compassion for the not-so-romantic present, too. We are flawed, yes, but we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and formed in divine design, where the most painful of experiences can be used to create peace and freedom on this earth, if we let them. We are in the throes of epic story-telling – and though the end of every small story we live out will not look like Disney, it will be full of light. Our suffering will lead to redemption, our brokenness will reveal wholeness and our most damning complexities will give way to elegant simplicity, even if those words sound impossible right now. Even if it does not happen tomorrow. 

As you transition ever so gently out of this dense decade and into the next, remember that these years you are living through are not just bricks that build up the great wall of your life to some competitive height, waiting to see if they will stand the test of time and scrutiny. Rather, they are rooms – rooms in the sprawling home of your becoming that you haven’t yet walked into. Some rooms will hold hurtful, lonely things. Impossibly difficult things. Some rooms will hold trophies and miracles and holidays. Some will feel sheltered, some will feel exposed. But through the lens of compassionate and redemptive love, you may enter every single room in this ragged and glorious becoming, and you will know that it is safe. 

 

About Anna McGahan

Anna is a writer, based in the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She can be found on Facebook under @annaweir, and on Instagram and Twitter under @annamcgahan.

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