A New Narrative and a New Normal

As my fiance and I advance closer to our December wedding, family and friends continue to offer advice concerning marriage and marriage preparation. One of the most helpful thoughts we've received came from one of my fiance's relatives, who told us (and I paraphrase): Each of you has a movie playing in your head that reflects your intentions and expectations. Often your movies fit seamlessly, but sometimes they fail to connect. The narratives don't tie together. From time to time, he said, pause your movie. Pause your story. Compare.  Ask each other, "What is your movie saying to you?"

Of course, we hear often about the necessity of regular and meaningful conversation, but his metaphor of the movie was a uniquely effective way to deliver that common message. It stuck with me, and experience has confirmed its truth. In our own minds, each of us carries a story about existence, about what it means and what should happen and what the world owes us. As I've thought more about this advice, I've started to apply it to other situations. It's not only spouses who see their stories differently; it's not only spouses who must pause their movies. Family and friends must pause their movies. Coworkers must pause their movies. Fellow citizens must pause their movies -- whether at a stoplight or at the grocery store or at the polls. How many fights have occurred because people don't suspend their stories? How much anxiety has resulted from our desire to impose a narrative on a cast of characters who never wanted to be a part of it?

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The importance of pausing my movie came to me quite powerfully today as I spoke to a mother who complained to me that her son was not admitted to the school where I teach and direct admissions. As I listened to her vent, I stepped into my role, into my movie. This is a college prep, I told her. He needs to get better grades. Ds and Fs won't cut it. I'm sorry. He can reapply next Fall and consider a transfer.

Her movie said something much different. In effect, she said: My student is precisely the kind of student you should accept. You're a Catholic school; you should be trying to help students who are struggling, not turning them away. The public school is failing kids. If you only accept the good students, how can they improve?

As I listened to her speak, I heard a phrase forming in my head, not necessarily as an accusation, but as some form of challenge: "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?" (Mt 5: 46)

Within a few minutes, I realized that two different stories drove the conversation between the mother and me. My story was shaped by my job and my own history in Jesuit education. I had a mission to uphold, a mission of academic excellence. 

Her story saw something much different. It was shaped by her intuitive sense of her Catholic faith. That faith means helping people. Her child needed help. You're going to turn him away?

Movies, stories, narratives: We all have them. And it's appropriate to think about them in light of Holy Week. In entering into Holy Week, we enter into the intersection of different stories. The Jews have a story. The Romans have a story. The Apostles do, too. Everyone works with a theory about Jesus, about who he is and what he means. Everyone involved in the events of the Passion carried a narrative about the Messiah. And, to be fair, it was the narrative -- or, to be anachronistic, the movie -- into which they had been born. For most of the Jewish people, the Messiah was supposed to be a political hero. For the Romans, it was mostly a political problem. For Jesus' closest followers, it didn't require a political hero, but it certaintly didn't involve him dying on the cross and perhaps not even resurrection (cf Luke 24:11). Regardless of the variations, no one had the correct version. 

And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews." Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.

No way. He couldn't be the Messiah. He couldn't be the one who would rise after three days. He couldn't be the one who claimed to be God. He couldn't be God. This didn't fit the script. It deviated too much. Culture, religion, tradition, reason: it all testified to its impossibility.

As I reflect on this, I return to the advice of my fiance's cousin: "Pause your movie." This week summons us to suspend our stories, our narratives about the way things are or should be. When God takes the initiative, a new normal ensues.

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