The Stories We Become

“The stories we live by are made, not found.” —Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By

Are we a project or a discovery? Do we make ourselves or are we disclosed to ourselves? The question has been for me a touchstone of sorts, something I return to with intensity in liminal moments — those thresholds we cross that change how we see the trajectory of our lives.

As a college student in the 70s I was drawn to existentialism, especially the kind that Albert Camus lived out. Somehow, he brought together elements of Stoicism and Romanticism into a resolute philosophy of life that emphasized commitment to principle along with a sensuous enjoyment of nature. Being brought up by English grandparents in California in the 60s, in a home that was religiously devout and loyal to the church, oddly enough, paralleled that outlook and even converged at some points.

My grandfather was English, from Yorkshire, average in height, stoic in his perseverance without complaint, and quietly consistent in his gentleness and understanding. His commitments to principle were unwavering, but his ability to forgive was just as strong. God was a presence he rarely named, but he lived in gratitude for how he had been led that expressed itself in moments between us, especially as we talked while wrestling boulders out of our volcanic soil under the heat of a California sun.

Camus, on the other hand, refused God, but never managed to turn his face away completely. Since his only perception of God was that portrayed by the Church, he was inevitably disappointed. It seemed to me that he lived as if he wished God were real. He saw life as a beautiful tragedy, something that appealed to my adolescent romanticism.

But above all, he believed that we made ourselves through our decisions and actions. Life required commitment, faith in each other, a willingness to sacrifice for principle. Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ novel, The Plague, daily faced death as he worked to relieve the suffering of his patients, simply because it was the right thing to do. That sense of duty to principle is where the Adventism of my grandparents and the humanism of Camus overlapped. There was a cross-pollination that has influenced me to this day.

Because of our strong heritage from one of the founders of our church, Ellen White, most of us of a certain vintage have grown up with phrases like being “as true to duty as the needle to the pole,” and “Everything depends on the right action of the will.” In effect, most of us were raised as Kantians, with a strong sense of duty, manifesting a kind of “disinterested benevolence,” to use another of Ellen White’s maxims. We were encouraged not to trust our emotions, since they could easily be swayed, but to trust in Scripture, our spirit of prophecy, and the moral precepts we derived from both.

The idea that we “make” ourselves can go in several directions. We could think of it as a by-product of duty, not something to be sought after, but not something to be dismissed either. Or we could choose, like Aristotle advocated, to seek a higher end or telos, through cultivating the virtues, a choice that we make through reason.

Yet, as Adventists, we are conflicted about trying to become virtuous. It seems presumptuous to us to imagine that we could pursue such an end, even one directed to God. It seems to emphasize works over faith, as if we might work ourselves out of the need for a savior or somewhere along the way, slough off the Holy Spirit. We want to be virtuous, but we don’t want to look like we’re trying to be. There is also a virulent strain of perfectionism in current Adventism that is curiously hostile both to virtue ethics (because it relies on philosophy) and to grace (because it’s not rigorous enough). So, an understanding of how we might be nourished and strengthened by practicing the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues, for instance, is timely and welcome.

There is another way that we make ourselves and that is through the stories we imagine for ourselves about who we are. Dan McAdams, in his ground-breaking book, The Stories We Live By, calls them “personal myths,” and defines them as “an act of imagination that is a patterned integration of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future.” Over the course of years, from adolescence to middle adulthood, McAdams says our personal myths should reflect increasing coherence, openness, credibility, differentiation, reconciliation, and generative integration. These six “narrative standards” are the elements of a good story in human identity, one that reflects who we are and lures us onward to what we may become.

As we become more differentiated in life, we face conflicts and paradoxes. Our personal stories become richer, more textured, as we learn to cope with suffering, disappointment, and conflicts. We seek reconciliation and harmony between the conflicting elements within ourselves and between ourselves and others. Reconciliation, says, McAdams, “is one of the most challenging tasks in the making of personal myth,” and psychologically, we’re not prepared to face it until in midlife.

McAdams’ research is original, but in some respects roughly parallels James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler argued that faith was a universal in human existence, and that one did not have to be “religious” in order to have faith. We look for order and patterns in the universe, and we live by what we find. He identified “faith as relating” and “faith as knowing,” and it is the latter that McAdams understands as contributing to our personal myths. McAdams sees the stories we construct for ourselves as developmental stages, “qualitatively different structures of religious belief and value.” He separates these into four positions, A through D.

Position A understands faith as specific rules about good behavior and has only vague notions about God, nature, human identity, and so forth. While it can be authentic, there is little reflection on meaning and even less on putting one’s thoughts in order. Nevertheless, it’s a beginning.

Position B, what Fowler calls “synthetic-conventional” faith, gathers up beliefs into a systematic creed or system, whether it be provided by the Church or the scientific enterprise. These are the positions, typically, of adolescents and young adults. There is structure within a system, but little questioning, either of beliefs or of the organizing principles.

With Position C, the individual moves beyond the conventions and begins to fashion a more individual and personalized faith structure. There is questioning of the conventions of the previous position and a good deal of soul-searching. We attempt to find something that is both authentic and truly expressive of who we think we are. And when we reflect on our faith and our conventions we may ultimately reject some and accept others — but the ones we accept will no doubt be those we reason are most honestly ours. We try to reconcile inconsistencies between our beliefs and those of other people through reason and logic. We wish the world were as reasonable as we are.

Position D, however, understands that reason is not enough. “A very small number of people,” says McAdams rather wryly, “beginning probably in mid-life, reorganize their beliefs and values in order to accommodate paradox and inconsistency in life.” In this phase we may gain a renewed appreciation for the simple stories of faith we grew up on, while at the same time recognizing that life is more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. James Fowler calls this “conjunctive faith” because it allows a person to join together ideas and images that are usually kept separate. It makes room for paradox and irony, qualities that are needed to think about the mystery of evil or the redeeming characteristics of our enemies and the darkness of our heroes. It lives with ambiguity and paradox. Some of its most articulate expressions are found in Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer.

It’s what I would call “innocent experience,” the quality of perception that comes after we take a fall from innocence into despair and knowledge and are forgiven and raised to a point beyond our innocence. If we’re fortunate enough to belong to a community, and humble enough to recognize our constant need for honesty, then we can live with paradox and uncertainty — and press ahead with faith.

If Position C — questioning and rejecting our conventional mores and theology — is the prodigal leaving home, Position D is the prodigal returning: wiser, humbler, and armed with a no-nonsense BS detector. The prodigal leaves home innocently arrogant, crosses over into weary cynicism, and returns with the gifts of openness and empathy.

In the summer of 2015, after the GC Session, I posted the following observation on my Facebook page. I think it applies now more than ever, especially since Annual Council 2018 (Battle Creek edition) presents us with an opportunity for authenticity, a way to re-imagine our faith together.

“It may be that in the post-San Antonio era, with another five years under Ted Wilson, many who have been Adventists all their lives, and many who may never have questioned church policy, procedures, and prejudices, will quietly realize how little they need to look to the church structure for their spiritual strength. They may see their friends, their pastors, those they have met online, their non-Adventist and non-Christian friends, as their spiritual community. They may understand that it's possible to be in the church, but not of the church, that we don't have to be hindered by unjust practices and blatant mismanagement to the extent that it blinds us to who Jesus is for us today. If we want, we can carry the invisible church within us every day. It will be exciting to see how we may grow and learn through adversity. We need to hold our fellow travelers close on this journey.” — Facebook, July 2015

Costumes and creeds do not a faith provide, but we can write a new story that does.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it?” —Isaiah 43:18, 19

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Image Credit: Unsplash / Aurelian Romain We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Sad that this even needs to be considered, but so true.

Excellent message of story. Thank you.


Many thanks Barry Casey for another of your many deeply-thought
reflective conversations.
If only TW ,and some of his corporate associates, took to heart just
a little of what you wrote, the church would be on a different journey -
one of grace, mercy, justice, compassion, humility and faith -
the love journey that Jesus invites us to go on.


It seems that the life of faith is actually a journey, not a destination. We never arrive this side of the second advent, or of our last breath. A life of faith has no point of arrival like our trip to Disney Land - but it is the way it’s explained to our youth. Thus, we grow up trying to reach this state of nirvana, but never arriving. We then either drop out or we substitute our expectations of some sort of arrival by giving the church that identity. Once that transference happens we get stuck in whatever stage we’re at, and hold on tenaciously - and the journey ends - and we begin to shrivel and ultimately die.

What takes us on this path is that we make that life of faith about ourselves. It’s not. It’s about discovery - finding out what’s around the next curve in our road; and there is always another bend in the road. It’s exciting - and scary - and satisfying - when we find ourselves thinking a new and important thought. It’s even more exciting to then find out that someone else has had the same thought - and a new community is born across time and/or distance. It’s all about finding truth - finding unbiased reality - finding God. Along the way we start valuing people, and respecting their journeys - sometimes finding community in unexpected places.


Every child is born hard-wired for faith because they are born expecting their needs will be provided. The eye contact, the flailing of the arms, the smile, the cooing are all behaviors to elicit response from the care providers. When the parents are attuned and able to provide the child’s needs adequately, regularly and predictably, this faith allows attachment to develop with its reciprocal bonding from the parents. The role of oxytocin among mothers and seriously lacking among fathers plays a primary role in fostering bonding. It is for this reason that children must never be separated from their care providers during the early part of life. Should children be separated, they should be returned to their parents within six months or adoption should be seriously considered.

Children who have experienced trauma during their formative years (the first six years of life) are at a high risk for developing inadequate sense of trust. This is most obvious among children with the diagnosis of PTSD.


Growing up as an Adventist through the 60’s and 70’s was tumultuous period. The uncovering of information about the results of Ellen White studies from the 1970’s it became obvious that their were unrealistic concepts of inspiration which caused many Adventists to adopt extreme positions ( with reference to Ellen White’s ministry, including reversionist attitudes. The Adventist of Fundamentalist inclination, confronted with a massive amount of new information, tends to elevate an idealized past as normative for the present, requiring a strong continuity (even identity) with that past. Therefore, historical data may be seen as the cause of unnecessary problems; primary sources may appear to initiate doubt about the leading of God; probing questions may seem threatening, with even their asking categorized as evidence of lack of faith. Thus judgmental groups tend to form on the edges of the church and mount a guerrilla war, firing salvos at people and institutions. This fundamentalist ideology seems to now hold sway on the leadership today.

The GC meetings this month have really brought out extreme views from the leadership and others who so desire the idealized past that they grew beards and wore costumes from the period they longed to identify with. Playing on the emotional and social cohesion drivers they thrusted their spear of extremism into the heart of the forces of Present Truth that have aggravated them since the 1970’s when the traditional view/use of EGW began to unravel as a result of objective research regarding her writings use and application. That said I think that consensus on the role of Ellen White would go a long way toward resolving many such tensions within Seventh-day Adventism. All the evidence needed to facilitate this objective is on the church’s corporate desk; in fact, it has been there for 48 years. A need remains in the church for a more faithful, informed, and unifying application of the writings of Ellen White. To that end the church needs to understand the reversionist and rejectionist options, and consciously adopt and promote a transformationist stance.


Beautifully said, Sirje!

Ted Wilson came to office with a pure agenda One “perfectly” designed by his father. Ted was going to improve on what Neal started. He uses the Bible as a prop and Ellen White as an ax and the Third World As His cheersection.


I propose that the members of the KGC, the kommandos of kommrades that will be in charge of the interrogations, should all have beards. It is viable, since there won’t certainly be any women in those “task forces.”

This would make it easier for the security guards at the Unions to identify the suspects (personas non gratas) and kick them out before they even sign in the visitors’ books… (Do you think I am too extreme?.. )

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My own take on all this might be termed reductionist-expansionist (I hope I’m coining a neologism, as I don’t mean to appropriate or falsify any established ism.)
First, that godliness consists, this side of heaven, in being humane.
That God wants us to worship Him in spirit as well as in truth.
That the Sabbath most importantly conducts one to have mercy and compassion for others as well as ourselves, the primary lesson of Jesus’s Sabbath miracles.
That the mark of the beast is not worshipping on “the wrong day” (as some were concerned about upon hearing that I was singing in a Sunday choir)–since we indeed have the privilege of adoring our Redeemer-Creator every day as long as we have breath.
That the spirit of the Sabbath is our freedom in Christ, who set us free from the base elements of sin and guilt and self-righteousness and
our own limited conceptions, and liberated our souls from the grip of enslavement to Satan and fear and death–that’s at least 7 things–that we might serve him with our whole being and becoming.
That it is not a time for striking with the fist or beating up our fellow servants, but of anticipating and already experiencing God-with-us, as we expand our imaginations to embrace all humanity, not just those who look like us or think like us or worship like us, but to really listen to one another and to the Lord with our ears, our souls, and our spirits, to sing with our voices and our understanding.
This is my prayer–not a creed but what I hope with all my heart.


Candace –
I have enjoyed my Episcopal friends of over 10 years – singing in the choir for 5.
I have enjoyed my Jewish friends it has been my privilege to worship with each
Friday evening and Welcome in the Sabbath rest which I find promoted in various
writings – some many centuries old.
I have Taize Wednesday evening prayer time with my Methodist friends.
My Baptist friends invited me to help them with their English classes for foreigners
on Tues, Thurs mornings – my second year.
My Saturday church – SDA – is only open Saturday 9am to 12:30, and Wednesday
7PM to 8PM.
I find ALL my SERVICE to God in these other wonderful communities. Should I
SHUN these other Children of God. NO! I join and have fun with their Sacrifices
to God.
Keep on enjoying your non-SDA friends!!


10/24/18 - #7

This is an innate process. But the patterns we find and live by are always, unavoidably inadequate, “Or what’s a heaven for?”

Here we could go into a discussion of Present Truth, what it is, how it relates to teleology, and stages of development, and if it is understood by every spiritually-attuned person in the same way, at the same time.

(And: what, if anything, is a spiritually-attuned person; and are all people spiritually attuned?)

This is a March 1995 article by Dr. John Testerman in Adventist Today that I have often referred to:

I’m always a little wary of these “stages” schemes (e.g., Kohlberg, also), because discussions can go south in an elitist way. That’s why I posted Testerman, noting his final paragraph, Coexistence.

It seems ideal that any “stages” would be virtually seamless and invisible in a healthy social group.

We certainly don’t belittle preoperational children for their inability to conserve volume and number:

The apostle Paul said:

You are not restrained in us, but you are restrained in your own affections.


We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.


Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.

For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.

Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:

That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.

Can we do this and maintain the necessary creative tension between our soteriology and our eschatology?

The angels are on tippytoes!

10/24/18 - #8

So my questions are:

  1. How does the lack of parental attunement affect the development of empathy in the child?
  2. If empathy is deeply rooted in our biology, is spiritual attunement also deeply rooted in our biology (assuming you believe spiritual attunement exists)?
  3. Are empathy and spiritual attunement related, or possibly even the same dynamic?



I’ll be brief, succinct and to the point to save space. The answers to your three questions are as follows.

  1. Empathy has three facets to its development. First is experience sharing. This is where parental attunement plays a major role in teaching and mirroring different emotional and feeling states to the developing child. Second, mentalizing, the ability to draw inferences from other people’s emotional states. Third to use empathy as a prosocial motivation for helping others. If the child fails to learn how to differentiate different emotional and feeling states from the primary care provide, it follows that the child would be unable to infer other people’s emotional and feeling states and would have problems helping others. From a neuroscience perspective, the neural pathways for experience sharing are not the same pathways used for mentalizing. It is on this basis that empathy is considered to have biological foundations. Autism is an example of this scenario.

  2. When someone engages in spiritual meditation, the parietal lobes are shown through brain imaging to decrease activity with the effect of losing orientation particularly with boundaries. The resultant feeling is being one with God. It is on this basis that spirituality is considered to have biological foundations. Very common among substance use disorders.

  3. Spiritual meditations are best described when one’s consciousness merges with the universe or cosmos God as a consequence of decrease activity in the parietal lobes. This is when all the mental activities are thought to be in equilibrium and it would be impossible to merge with the cosmos without having the ability to gauge and infer emotional and feeling states of the cosmos. For this reason, empathy and spirituality work bests during spiritual meditations although they have different biological foundations.


10/27/18 - #11

Meta Prayer…because one Buddha is not enough…

Ho’oponopono Prayer, because we all need it…

This requires some clarification, at least for me:

Thank you, Elmer—very interesting! :slight_smile:

I suggest that this is true of some substances…there are some abused substances which present with very different sequelae.
I further suspect that for many religious people they are addicted to their own endogenous fix, a reward for “being so right”. The disintegration of relationships in their lives sometimes parallels the relational losses of substance abusers.

I’m lost Cassie. What needs clarification?

10/27/18 - #22/22

I’m wondering if you understand this merging to be ontologically happening, of if you see it as an artifact of brain activity, a trick of the mind.

If this merging is ontologically real, do you believe human beings actually do have “the ability to gauge and infer emotional and feeling states of the cosmos,” which would imply that the cosmos experiences such states.

Somehow in the past, I’ve inferred that you held a reductionist position, i.e., that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neural activity.


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Brain images done by Andrew Newberg of Univ of Pa on monks and nuns consistently showed diminished activity of the parietal lobes when meditating. The parietal lobes play a major role in visuospatial processing so when the parietal lobes become silent, visuospatial processing is lost. Brain images on monks and nuns were completed before and after entering the meditating states and the consistent findings were diminished activity of the parietal lobes during the meditation segment. It is during this states when monks described “getting in touch with the cosmos” and the nuns report achieving "communion with God” as a consequence of the loss of visuospatial activity of the parietal lobes.

Men have the ability to understand because of the brain. There are times such as when the brain is under the influence of drugs that the mind becomes senseless such as smelling colors and tasting numbers or during seizures when portions of the brain activate all at the same time causing abnormal phenomenon.

The brain is so complex that anybody who admits to being a reductionist simply has not fully comprehend what the brain is capable of doing. With the emerging studies on epigenesis, reductionist will soon fall out of favor. It was believed once in the past that we are what our DNAs are but not anymore. Once science believed the majority of our DNA were junk. Not anymore.

If there were no neural activity, we would be dead and I do not know yet of any medical case where a dead person remained conscious.


10/27/18 - #23/23

Thanks, Elmer—very, very interesting!

Synesthesia is fascinating. I recently watched this documentary on Daniel Tammet, who flawlessly recited 22,514 digits of Pi in five hours, 9 minutes, on camera.

He also developed a conversational mastery of Icelandic (one of the most difficult languages) in a week, and was interviewed on Iceland TV demonstrating this.



More later…

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