I believe that at the core of everything important–religions, countries, families, the great mysteries of love and death–we find not doctrines or philosophical propositions or explanations but stories, stories that take us as close as we can get to the heart of things. When we reach the limits of understanding, all we can do is sit down and share our stories. This is how we know who we are.
My own story, like everyone else’s story, is part of a number of larger stories, all of which are part of even larger stories. My story is part of the story of my immediate family (my wife and three daughters), and this story in turn is part of the larger stories of my extended family and my wife’s extended family, stories that go all the way back to Adam and Eve. My story is also part of the larger stories of the places where I lived before I got married and the places where my wife have lived together–Three Oaks, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill, Princeton, Galesburg, Chicago, Florence, Bologna. My story is also part of the larger stories of the schools I’ve attended, starting with Three Oaks High School, and ending with Knox College, where I’ve taught for thirty-five years. And so on.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade I, like many of my classmates, expressed my sense that life is made up of stories within stories by the way I identified myself on my school notebooks: Bobby Hellenga, RR1, Three Oaks, Berrien County, Michigan, United States of America, Northern Hemisphere, Christendom, Planet Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Universe. That’s the way I saw things: concentric rings of stories till you get to the story of universe itself.
For many years I assumed that the bigger stories explained the smaller ones, that the bigger rings gave meaning to the rings that they enclosed, but now I think it’s the other way around, and that each story illuminates and gives meaning to the larger story of which it is a part, till you get to the farthest ring, the primum mobile, and even beyond, where the universe folds in upon itself and there’s nothing left to illuminate, nothing left to give meaning to.
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