Diane Millis is a writer, teacher, and workshop/retreat leader who focuses on the art of listening. In her new book, Re-Creating a Life: Learning How to Tell Our Most Life-Giving Story, she offers a set of questions and strategies for telling new stories about our lives that more closely reflect who we are and our possibilities. Susan Sink interviewed her about her book and the importance of both telling, and listening, in the process of discovering our redemptive stories.
Helping readers achieve a generative life is the goal of your book. To reach this goal, however, you claim that everyone needs to find a life-giving story. I was moved by “Ted,” who continually repeats his life story in a negative way: “I didn’t live up to my potential.” I know so many people in this place, especially those who have lost a job or failed to earn a promotion, or who are retired. As someone who has spent a long time working on issues of vocation, how do you advise people to avoid this rut?
I feel for Ted, as well. I’ve had many moments in my own life when I’ve heard a similar internal refrain, “you didn’t live up to your potential.” I’ve experienced a real dissonance between my yearning to make a more significant contribution through my work–especially my teaching—and the seemingly limited pathways available to me.
I had to learn to tell a more redemptive story for myself. The best way I’ve found to do that is by gathering together a community of conversation partners. As I underscore throughout the book, we need a community to accompany us, to teach us how to tell our most life-giving story. We need people who can hold up a mirror for us and help us see aspects of ourselves, and our stories, that we may otherwise miss.
I would not have been able to tell the story I now tell had it not been for the community of conversation partners who have accompanied me, including my husband, my spiritual director, mentors and teachers, and the members of my spirituality group.
Working through questions I raise in this book with several close companions could help Ted thicken his narrative by naming what they notice, appreciate, and wonder about in his story. There’s more to all of us than “I didn’t live up to my potential.”
I like the phrase “thicken the narrative” to describe telling a fuller story in order to put disappointment in perspective. What are ways that you have discovered that don’t just add to but actually transform or change the story one tells?
Noticing what stirs my heart as I listen to others’ stories usually gives me clues into my own.
When I find myself drawn to an aspect of another’s story, I consider: what aspects of my own story am I being invited to develop more fully?
When I find myself drawn to an aspect of another’s story, I consider: what aspects of my own story am I being invited to develop more fully? For example, in the book I write about one of my students who lost her husband to suicide. What struck me as I listened to her tell her story about his death was the notable absence of self-pity coupled with a palpable sense of God’s love for her. Rather than judge herself, she exemplified profound self-compassion. It challenged me to rethink some of the aspects in my own narrative where I could offer myself greater self-compassion.
I also pay attention to the aspects in my own and others’ stories that I’d rather resist or ignore. It’s true: what we resist, persists. That’s why psychologists such as James Pennebaker encourage us to reexamine disappointing experiences and difficult memories through expressive writing. He has found those who compare the thoughts and feelings they had at a time of difficulty with the thoughts and feelings they now have, report the greatest healing. He has also found that setting limits on the writing time is key, and that fifteen minutes a day over the course of four consecutive days is optimal.
Ultimately, it is the combination of introspection and conversation that helps us to retell a fuller, more complete story. That is why I typically allocate fifteen minutes of writing time, in the workshops and retreats I facilitate. It prepares participants for the storytelling.
The focus on telling redemptive stories can sound like finding the silver lining in a dark cloud. At one point you write about how your story was redeemed by moving from “broken apart” to “broken open.” How do you see redemptive stories as different from simply stories with a happy ending?
You raise a question that was key for me as I wrote this book. A redemptive story has nothing to do with a happily ever after story. The book challenges readers to first and foremost embrace the commitment to the act of telling the story of their lives. It is through the telling of a story that we discover the redemptive meaning within. I’m not asking people to find the silver lining of their lives; I’m asking them to discover the full truth about their lives, and that truth is almost always a pathway to generativity.
If you want easy happy endings, watch a Hallmark movie. The real world is not a happily ever after place. Yet, it remains a place of both grit and grace if we cultivate the eyes to see and the ears to hear, along with the willingness to tell others about what we are seeing and hearing.
You’re comfortable examining your own stories in this book. What is one thing you learned about yourself in writing the book?
For most of my life I toggled between two narratives: a phantom story about the life I wished I were living, and the story of the life I have actually lived. My appreciation for the life I live increased through writing this book. So has the clarity and coherence of the story I tell about it. By the time I completed the book, it felt as if the phantom story had evaporated.
I grew to see the beauty revealed in my experiences of brokenness, along with a sense of being repaired and healed at a very deep level.
As I wrote the book, I felt as if I were practicing kintsugi, the Japanese art form in which broken ceramics are carefully mended by artisans with a resin of gold, silver or platinum. Rather than trying to hide the breaks and repairs, the resin makes them more visible and beautiful. So too, through the writing, I grew to see the beauty revealed in my experiences of brokenness, along with a sense of being repaired and healed at a very deep level.
You write about your parents’ divorce as a clear point of disruption in your life story. I identified with that. I have a very clear sense of when my story has been disrupted. Frequently these are times when stories not of my choosing become part of my life story. Yet I find that now the stories that come to me are almost always about my successes, not disruptions — experiences I was lucky to have. I wonder if, in the end, your book is about giving disruption — pain and loss and disappointment — its due, but of integrating these experiencing to focus more on beauty in the self and the world.
Yes. Investigation is the key to unlocking, releasing, and integrating into your large life story, stories that are not of our own choosing. Like you, by the end of the book, I experienced a visceral gratitude, along with a greater sense of awe and wonder about the life I actually live. As we revise and affirm our view of ourselves, it realigns our view of the world. The more beauty, truth, and goodness we come to see in ourselves, the more beauty, truth, and goodness we tend to see in the world and its peoples.
In your work there is always a focus on listening. Do you think your book can be helpful in this regard, maybe especially in spiritual direction?
My Benedictine formation is showing. For me, in listening with the ear of our hearts, we hear the voice of Mystery offering us a more life-giving story.
We don’t need to be trained listening professionals in order to serve as deep listeners to one another.
I am grateful that Spiritual Directors’ International selected this book to be the first for their newly minted publishing press. Hopefully, this book offers a toolkit for all who seek to live more generative lives as well as those who want to offer encouragement to others wishing to do the same.
We don’t need to be trained listening professionals in order to serve as deep listeners to one another. This in no way undermines the value of examining your story with a listening professional, but trained or licensed professionals are not the only ones who can help us probe deeper meaning. My most exquisite experiences of being listened to deeply were conversations I shared with teachers, caring adults, family members, and dear friends. I hope this book returns the gift they have given me.