“Story” is a big idea right now.DSC_1274

It really is as if we are experiencing a renaissance when it comes to personal narratives.  There are so many people, myself included, concerned with helping people craft a narrative out of their lives.  Whole blogs and books and conferences dedicated to turning our ordinary lives into extraordinary stories.

We all want our lives to have a story, a narrative, a legacy.

We want our lives to have meaning and purpose.

We want to be remembered for something.

And what I’m discovering in Africa, amongst the ashes and the poverty is an absolute wealth of stories just waiting to be told.

Here’s the thing.  These stories can’t be told in the way we are used to as Americans.

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In our American culture, children are everything.IMG_4954

You can simply drop children into the conversation and suddenly it changes everything.  Every motive, every angle, every action revolves around kids.

“Is it good for the children,” we ask.

We have all kinds of laws and protections that surround our kids, because we love them so much.  We want the best for them.  We want them to grow up, to be safe, to be happy, to have big dreams.

But as I wander around Africa, I am realizing that these questions are not enough.

Because when we ask “Is it good for the children?” we of course mean our children.  We mean our own kids. We mean American children.  We mean the kids on our block or the kids in our church.

And plenty of children are lost in that question.

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All my life, I feel I’ve been taught how to think.

There is a right way to think, a logical way to think, an efficient or true or noble way to think.

And the thinking goes that emotion is the “enemy” of thought.  Emotions are not rational or logical.  They cloud our judgment, make us do crazy things, override our better instincts.  We marginalize people who are “too emotional.”  We are embarrassed by public displays of emotion, as if feelings were something which we should have evolved out of by now.

I’ve always been kind of a stoic, guarded my feelings a bit, held them tightly to my chest.  Sometimes, I don’t even know how to express my emotions.

My short time in Africa has been an outpouring of emotion, sometimes so large I do not know what to do with it.

These children live in the slums with half a million other people.  That girl's smile was incredible.

These children live in the slums with half a million other people. That girl’s smile was incredible.

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In America, we are a people of first world problems.  African Farm Boy

So many first world problems that we even have a hashtag to keep track of all of our #firstworldproblems.

And even though I know that first world problems are tongue in cheek, are not real problems, I so often live my life as if my first world problems are real life problems.  

Today, I’m heading over to Uganda, a land that does not know any first world problems.  Uganda is a place where people do not complain that their iPhones are broken or their bus was late.  Uganda is a land filled with real world problems.  Hunger is a real world problem.  Disease is a real world problem.  Prostitution, rape, addiction, abandonment, poverty, desperation are all real world problems.

But you know what? This trip is not about problems.

I’m not going to inundate you with sob stories. I’m not going to go to the other side of the world to parade people around like they are zoo animals in a commercial.

I’m not going on a guilt trip and I’m not going to send you on one.

Why?

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Ash.

Who thinks much about ash?  The little gray particles floating out of our campfires.  The pile left in our fireplaces and barbecue grills.

When we talk about burning out, we talk about people who have so much pressure put on them, either by themselves or by others, that they break down.  Lots of people seem to burn out of church.  Or they burn out of their jobs or their ministry.  Burning out is bad.

Jack London is one of my favorite authors.  And just as much as I enjoy his stories of men fighting the elements of nature, I enjoy his philosophy of living.  Because he did not sit back and take life passively.  For London, living, working, writing was all something that you went after ferociously.  He is one of my male role models / heroes.  Not the only role model I enjoy admiring, but one of them.

And for Jack London, life was not about burning out…but it was about burning.  It was about fueling a glowing ember inside you that generated heat and energy and ambition and love.

That’s why I absolutely delighted in sharing this quote to my students.  It produced a number of puzzled looks.  Students had to think for several moments as they contemplated his meaning before their faces would change to the “A-ha!” expression.  And for me, it just sums up so simply one aspect of how I want to live.

ash

I would rather die having lived, having burned, having glowed, than simply settled passively.  I hope you feel the same.  I hope this year is one of opportunities for you.  And when those opportunities present themselves, go after them boldly.

To say I’m “fueled” right now is an understatement.

There is just so much good stuff happening right now, I can barely soak it up.

It’s definitely food for the soul.  The year is off to a good start. Here’s a few great things that fueled me this week.

In My Theaterimages

I offer an elective class to my high schoolers on short stories, one of my favorite hours of the week.  And it just so happens that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was near the top of my list of stories to read.  So naturally, I’ve been excited about the movie for months.  Then I was extremely concerned when the poor reviews started rushing in.  But I can honestly say – and I don’t say this often – that I think the critics have been too hard on the movie.  It’s not perfect, but it’s still a great movie that makes you want to go on an adventure and live your life.

On My Bookshelf

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I hardly read any novels.  I know, maybe that makes me a caveman.  (That’s why short stories are more my speed.)  But apparently after nearly eight years of marriage, my wife knows when I’ll enjoy a novel.  I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I read The Fault In Our Stars over the course of just a few days and could not have been more satisfied.  It’s existential.  It’s deep.  It’s sad.  It’s funny.  It’s…everything.

In My Blog Reader

Most importantly for me, next week I’m heading to Uganda for the first time with an amazing group of people to see what World Help is doing over there (and hopefully raise awareness for their Infant Rescue Homes initiative.)  The bloggers I’m traveling with have been writing some top notch material that is shaping my heart and mind for this trip.

First, Dan King tells us why this isn’t going to be another sob story.  We have enough sad stories.  You don’t need us to travel around the world to give you another tearjerker.

Noel Yeatts, our group leader discusses shifting the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can.  We all know that the world’s problems are way too big for us, and can’t ever be solved, blah, blah, blah.

Finally, Emily Wierenga opened my eyes to how we see poverty as Americans and how pity is not what third-world people need.

I hope you’ll follow our stories over the next couple of weeks.  That’s what fueled me in this new year.  What about you?