From Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
When I got back from Los Angeles, I got together with my friend Jason who has a thirteen year old daughter. He was feeling down because he and his wife had found some pot hidden in their daughter’s closet. She was dating a guy, too, a kid who smelled like smoke and only answered questions with single words: “Yeah,” “No,” “Whatever,” and “Why?” And “Why?” was the answer Jason hated most. Have her home by ten, Jason would say. Why? the guy would ask. Jason figured this guy was the reason his daughter was experimenting with drugs.
“You thought about grounding her?” I asked. “Not allowing her to date him?”
“We’ve tried that. But it’s gotten worse.” Jason shook his head and fidgeted his fingers on the table. Then I said something that caught his attention. I said that his daughter was living a terrible story.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I meant. I probably wouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t just returned from the McKee seminar. But I told him about the stuff I’d learned, that the elements of story involve a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Even as I said this, I wasn’t sure how it applied to his daughter.
“Go on,” my friend said.
“I don’t know, exactly, but she’s not living a very good story. She’s caught up in a bad one.” I said a lot of other things and he kept asking questions. We must have talked for an hour or more, about how novels work and why some movies are meaningful and others simply aren’t. I didn’t think much of it. I just thought he was curious about movies.
The night after we talked, Jason couldn’t sleep. He thought about the story his daughter was living and the role she was playing inside that story. He realized he hadn’t provided a better role for his daughter. He hadn’t mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only being used. In the absence of a family story, she’d chosen a story in which there was risk and adventure, rebellion and independence. “She’s not a bad girl,” my friend said. “She was just choosing the best story available to her.”
I pictured his daughter flipping through the channels of life, as it were, stopping on a story that seemed most compelling at the moment, a story that offered her something, anything, because people can’t live without a story, without a role to play. “So how did you get her out of it?” I asked. And I couldn’t believe what he told me next.
Jason decided to stop yelling at his daughter and, instead, create a better story to invite her into. He remembered that a story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.
“I started researching stuff on the internet,” Jason said, “and I came across an organization that builds orphanages around the world. And that sounded to me like a pretty good ambition, something maybe my family could try to do together. It sounded like a good story.”
“Right,” I said, trying to remember the elements of story myself.
“So I called this organization,” Jason continued, “And it takes about twenty-five thousand dollars to build one of these orphanages. And the truth is, we don’t have the money. I mean we just took out a second mortgage. But I knew if we were going to tell a good story, it would have to involve risk.”
“That’s true,” I said, remembering it from the seminar.
“So I went home and called a family meeting,” my friend continued. “I didn’t tell my wife first, which it turns out was a big mistake. But I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage. Then I told them I agreed to build it.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“No, I’m not. And my wife sat there looking at me like I’d lost my mind. And I looked at my daughter, her eyes as big as melons, and she wasn’t happy. She knew this would mean she’d have to give up her allowance and who knows what else. They just sat there in silence. And the longer they sat there, the more I wondered if I had lost my mind.”
“I actually think you might have lost your mind,” I said, feeling somewhat responsible.
“Well, maybe so,” Jason said, looking away for a second with a smile. “But it’s working out. I mean things are getting pretty good, Don.”
Jason went on to explain that his wife and daughter went back to their separate rooms and neither of them talked to him. His wife was rightly upset that he hadn’t mentioned anything to her. But that night while they were lying in bed, he explained the whole story thing, about how they weren’t taking risks and weren’t helping anybody and how their daughter was losing interest.
“The next day,” he said, “Annie came to me while I was doing the dishes.” He collected his words. “Things had just been tense for the last year, Don. I haven’t told you everything. But my wife came to me and put her arms around me and leaned her face into the back of my neck and told me she was proud of me.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“I’m not,” my friend said. “Don, I hadn’t heard Annie say anything like that in years. I told her I was sorry I didn’t talk to her about it, that I just got excited. She said she forgave me but that it didn’t matter. She said we had an orphanage to build, and that we were probably going to make bigger mistakes, but we would build it.” My friend smiled as he remembered his wife’s words.
“And then Rachel came into our bedroom, maybe a few days later, and asked if we could go to Mexico. Annie and I just sort of looked at her and didn’t know what to say. So then Rachel crawled between us in the bed like she did when she was little. She said she could talk about the orphanage on her web site and maybe people could help. She could post pictures. She wanted to go to Mexico to meet the kids and take pictures for her website.”
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“You know what else, man?” Jason said. “She broke up with her boyfriend last week. She had this picture on her dresser and took it down and told me he said she was too fat. Can you believe that? What a jerk.”
“A jerk,” I agreed.
“But that’s done now,” Jason said, shaking his head. “No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her. She knows who she is. She just forgot for a little while.”
Talk to me, Monkees. Do you know what you’d like your family’s story to be?
I’m thinking about drafting one. Scary, though.