A couple of years ago now, I read Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Following the great success of his memoir Blue Like Jazz, Miller slumped into something akin to a low-grade depression. When two producers proposed turning Jazz into a movie, Miller discovered that his life didn’t actually bear any resemblance to a great story. After he realized that he was just drifting through his days, he decided to figure out how to live a better and more inspiring life story.
So, track with me carefully here: Million Miles is Miller’s memoir about how the process of making his other memoir into a movie shaped his thoughts about the meaning of living a good story and ultimately changed his life.
It’s a testament to Miller’s nuanced self-analysis and his skill as a writer that this solipsistic little book is actually really good.
Earlier this year, I found myself remembering Miller’s thoughts on memorable moments. In Million Miles, he writes about a kayak trip to visit friends who live on an island. As he paddles away after his visit, the entire family jumps (fully clothed) into the lake to mark the farewell.
This made a big impression on Miller. Later in the book he argues that memorable moments—times when we do crazy things or work hard to make a day stand out—stamp our life narrative with extra force. They carry particular power to shape our memories and flavor our personal story.
I found myself thinking about this because, during the last four years, our little family has had a lot of moments that are very memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Our baby broke his femur while we were living in Northern Laos. I broke an ankle. My husband had two spinal surgeries for herniated discs, was diagnosed with cancer, and went through more surgery and chemotherapy. I’ve had five cellulitis infections (a serious complication of my chronic condition, lymphedema). We moved house three times and countries once. Last year, my husband started a new job as country director for the largest NGO in Vanuatu a mere two and a half weeks before Cyclone Pam (the strongest storm then-recorded in the Pacific) devastated most of the country.
Many wonderful things have happened during this time too, of course. However, when I look back on the last several years, these mega-dramas and other hardships stand out with unfortunate clarity.
So on our wedding anniversary this year—our seventh—I issued a decree. This year was going to become a “Year Of Awesome”.
I set us the challenge of finding something extraordinary to do each month for the entire year. Something fun. Something adventurous. Something delicious or out of the ordinary. Something magical.
Or, at least, something that had the potential to be magical. Points awarded for trying.
I declared a “year of awesome” because in some ways it felt like we were paddling hard just to keep our heads above water, and it had felt that way for a long time. Because, with everything on our plates and two kids under five who have been terrible sleepers for most of their lives, it was easy not to stretch to create moments and outings and days that are memorable for lovely reasons. And because I trust that the lovely, the fun, and the wondrous carry just as much power to shape our stories and our spirits as the hardships.
We’re four months into the year of awesome now. We’ve been out on a glass-bottom-boat, journeyed out to islands, snorkeled over bright coral, celebrated our birthdays with champagne, and gone camping on the beach with baby turtles. So far, so good.
So, do you need some encouragement to stretch a little to experience some of the wonderful things where you are? Do you need permission to take some time to celebrate the lovely and the beautiful? Do you need a year of awesome?
If you live overseas (particularly if you’re a missionary or an aid worker) you may almost feel like you shouldn’t do this sort of stuff. Or, at least, like you shouldn’t be seen to be doing too much of this sort of stuff. You know that the primary reason you’re in Vanuatu (or Egypt, or Mozambique, or wherever) is not to go camping with baby turtles. And if you do that and share the photos on facebook or your blog, you might feel a bit worried that people will get the wrong idea.
I don’t want to downplay that tension, but I do want to say this: Most people can handle nuance, particularly if you’re good at telling your stories. So practice trusting people. And practice telling your stories. All of your stories. Living overseas brings with it some unusual stressors. It also brings with it some unusual joys. So tell them about your work, and about the frustrations and other hard things that are happening. And tell them about the beautiful and the fun. Give them a chance to celebrate the good in life with you.
This will help them get to know you better. And it will help kill that destructive, still-pervasive, myth that being a missionary or an aid worker is all about sacrifice and struggle and pain, and if you’re not hurting on some level most of the time, you’re not doing it right.
So there you have it. Now, my friends, go out and find something awesome to do where you live. And enjoy.