The Mystery That Shapes Us
Lean into it, rewrite the stories of your life
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” This is one of those quotes that everyone knows. A way Zora Neale Hurston engraved some wisdom into human consciousness. When Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, I wonder if she knew that line would stick.
Last year provided some answers in my life. You will leave New York sooner than planned. John was rig about Connecticut. Every risk you took was leading to this. And the biggest one: You were right to trust yourself.
The answers brought some relief after many years of questions. There were little resolutions along the way, little arrows on the path — yes — but never as many as I wanted. Just enough to keep us tethered to the map.
The map was drawn in whispers, and it often felt unclear. I had an exchange with a friend in Nashville in 2019 at one such moment. John and I were about to move after spending a year there, which in many ways didn’t feel right. We were happy in Nashville.
“This feels good right now,” I said to the friend, eyes searching. “We don’t want to go, but it seems like we have to stay committed to the bigger vision.”
“I think you do,” the friend offered. “You have to choose the bigger vision.” It was the kind of validation in a murky moment that you never forget. But my heart sank in the mystery and the weight of it.
Our lives are a series of stories. Stories help us understand who we are and why we are here. I am good with babies. My father doesn’t know me. The South always tries to lure me back.
Finding meaning in our lives is essential to coping with the bewildering realities we face as humans. The narratives we form around our experience help us make sense of it. We write stories about ourselves without even realizing it, and for better or worse, those stories provide the meaning we crave.
Sometimes we craft stories about ourselves in therapy, journals, or conversations with friends. We consciously engage in shaping the narrative. Eventually we notice a story has formed around one piece of our life or another. I thought excelling would earn love and attention. My brother seemed lonely as a kid. Other times, stories appear without us having any sense of where they came from.
The most difficult thing about stories that shape us is that we do not write all of them. Environment shapes our stories as much, and maybe more, than we do. We have stories bestowed upon us by our families, communities, and countries. Sometimes they are stories we do not want. The stories we inherit can be the hardest ones to accept.
However difficult inherited stories may be, the news about stories isn’t all bleak. We must remember that no matter where we are now, no matter what frustrating environments we have encountered, we can take the next sentence into our own hands. We can place ourselves inside contexts that are able to hold the stories we want to write.
My experience with religion is a perfect example. The evangelical church shaped my early life, and it left me with some problematic stories. Here’s one of them. We want you to sing. But we do not believe women are equipped to lead. So when you sing successfully, we will accuse you of having a pride problem.
These days, in contrast, I am being encouraged to use my voice again at divinity school. Both in the classroom and in liturgical settings. But the narratives shaping this experience are different. Women are celebrated and trusted to lead. I am encouraged to sing and speak, even to preach. When I am successful, I am supported rather than criticized.
The environment I have chosen is superimposing new stories over the old ones. For me, pride was never the issue. I just needed more generous surroundings to find some confidence. My new world sees my voice as something to be embraced rather than feared. Put another way, this environment is equipped to hold the stories I most want to write.
The challenge we face when writing new stories is that the questions are unavoidable. This is what we learned from Zora Neale Hurston. Questions might shape entire chapters of our lives before we get anywhere near an answer.
However frustrating this may be, it is impossible to write a good story without asking what the main character would do next. So if we want to write different stories about ourselves, the questions we ask become essential. The way we shape those questions will eventually shape their answers.
If we want to change a personal story, the questions we ask must be formed with commitments in mind. Those commitments have to reflect the dreams we want to see fulfilled. I will use my talents and resources for the greater good. I will seek communities that share my values. I will trust the call even when it requires great risk.
Often we must exist with these commitments long before we know where they will take us. In other words, our questions will lead to more uncertainty before they bring clarity. There is always mystery involved. This equation can be exciting, but it is frequently maddening. Rarely is it comfortable.
Father Richard Rohr writes beautifully about our discomfort with mystery. We live in an age of certitude, he explains in an interview with Brené Brown. Science and reason have groomed us to expect and demand answers. When we don’t have answers, we get frustrated.
The mystics knew better, Father Rohr points out. They surrendered to the mystery of the divine. They gave themselves over to celestial love and didn’t worry about much beyond that.
“Those who know always know that they don’t know,” Father Rohr once wrote. Living this way, embracing the mystery, requires more than a little bit of faith. This applies to life whether you are feeling around in deep spiritual waters or plotting a meaningful career move.
Faith is never easy. It requires dedication to vision and walking mysterious paths. The mystery feels like darkness. Rohr describes faith as “an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary for survival in an uncertain world.”
Our paths in this lifetime are definitively uncertain. Committing to a different way of knowing, a great hope for your life—as my family did when we left Nashville—mandates giant leaps of faith. Those leaps always happen before we know how things will actually turn out.
In my life, trusting the mystery has not been easy. But it has never let me down. When you pair surrender with thoughtful commitment and deep trust, one day your questions might uncover answers with more meaning than you ever dreamed.
Some people say to follow God. I am saying to follow the mystery. If the mystics were right, then we are saying exactly the same thing.
Between you and me—
Hello out there, and happy new year! I am back from my annual holiday break, and I’ve missed you. To start the year, some news: In 2023, WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE will be published once a month, on the third Saturday of each month.
This is a shift from where we started in July 2019. For three years, our weekly cadence was intimate and meaningful. I am so grateful! Now, in this season, I am being asked to hold and grow more at once than I ever anticipated. Currently, my sacred responsibility (!) is to create conditions under which all the things I love can thrive.
I’ve been thinking of it this way: I am the gardener of my own life. So I must take stock of all my beautiful plants—there are so many plants—and put each in a container that allows it to grow. Inside that container, with the right amount of love and attention, each plant can happily blossom.
Right now, my garden is full. I am tending a very demanding program, my husband’s soaring career, my wonderful marriage, a beloved dog, my personal relationships, a job, and this community. Everything is attempting to bloom at one time, and I am overjoyed.
In the fall, I committed to publishing here twice per month, and it was wonderful. But as my new life took root, it became clear that a twice-monthly commitment meant I never had a day to rest. I was always studying, writing, or traveling. My spirit, at times, was so tired.
My spirit needs a container in which it can thrive, too, and days of rest are essential. For me, water bursts forth from quiet streams. I am very excited to meet you here on the second Saturday of each month. Audio recordings of each essay will continue. As always, I will be so honored if you share an essay or recording with a friend.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading.
This past month was challenging in my world due to unexpected health issues across my entire family, but we are doing better now. I am heading into a new semester, and for that I couldn’t be happier. Wish me luck!
John, Herbie, and I will keep a schedule that is bursting at the seams this year, and when life is that full, there are times it feels the seams might actually burst. Years of questions (and the faith that runs alongside them) brought us here, so we are deeply grateful to walk through each door that opens.
In other news, if you need a little extra beauty in your life, read Claire Keegan. Trust me on this. She puts every word precisely where it needs to go inside a clause inside a sentence inside a story, and that is a marvelous and satisfying thing.
Till next time, I wish you blessings. Take care out there.
The audio version of WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE is available on Spotify, Apple, Substack, or wherever you listen to podcasts. The last episode offered a vision of advent for everyone.
WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE is written by Lauren Maxwell. Can you help us grow? Send this to a friend and ask them to subscribe. Share it on Instagram and tag @lauren_only. If you enjoy this work, please consider becoming a sponsor, which compensates me for my time and effort and keeps this publication free for all. Thank you so much for being here and for your contributions!