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My Faith: How storytelling saved my life
The author in his college days, as seen in his student ID card from Yale.
August 7th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Faith: How storytelling saved my life

Editor's Note: Edward Grinnan is editor-in-chief of Guideposts magazine and author of "The Promise of Hope: How True Stories of Hope and Inspiration Saved My Life and How They Can Transform Yours."

By Edward Grinnan, Special to CNN

One spring day 25 years ago, I found myself perched on the 21st floor windowsill of a Denmark hotel room, holding what I thought would be my last alcoholic drink. I planned to give it up in a big way.

For all these years, I never told that story publicly, despite being the editor-in-chief of Guideposts, an interfaith magazine in which ordinary people tell their own stories of hope. My job is to persuade and help people tell those stories.

I’ve long known that such stories are our best medium for forging connections with our fellow human beings. They help span the breach of solipsism to unify the human experience.

We’ve been telling our stories since we could carve on cave walls, and probably longer. Stories are the roadmaps of our lives, and we're hard-wired for telling them.

Two generations before the internet and social networking, the minister and grandfather of the self-help movement, Norman Vincent Peale, founded Guideposts as a place for what would eventually come to be known as user-generated content.

Its origins were humble; the first issue of Guideposts was a 16-page booklet that featured World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker on the cover.

Peale saw that by sharing our stories, we not only change ourselves, we change others. The act of telling our stories is transformative.

When I crawled into the Guideposts office in midtown Manhattan 23 years ago looking for a job, any job, I had no idea how being exposed to the power and beauty of true personal stories would change my life.

I was virtually homeless at the time and still recovering from the alcoholic seizures I'd suffered just a few weeks before.

I have no idea why I was even given a job, albeit an editorially menial one. I certainly wouldn’t have hired me.

Several years removed from getting a master’s degree in playwriting from Yale, I had been in and out of detoxes and rehabs, ERs, sobering-up stations and flophouses. I’d occasionally lived on the streets, smoked butts I’d found in the gutters and begged for change in the Hoboken, New Jersey, train station and in the shadows of the twin towers.

I’d hit bottom and now I was trying – again – to claw my way back. Little did I know that the path was right before me, aptly named Guideposts. Still, at the start I never intended to spend more than a year working for this odd little magazine.

Eventually, that changed. And so did I.

Yet two years ago, when I decided to write a book about a career spent helping people tell their stories, I had absolutely no intention of sharing my own. I’d never told it to my readers, or even my employers.

Yes, shame was a factor. Who wants to admit he’d sunk so low as to beg for change and sleep on benches? But it was also the nihilism of my 20s that I wanted to keep buried, that part of my life that felt more like an archeological dig than a personal story. Who was that person?

And I knew enough to understand that writing autobiographically can be like performing surgery on yourself without anesthesia.

No, I wanted my book to explain the basic steps for making personal changes that I’d picked up from the people who told their stories in Guideposts. People like Bill Irwin, who thru-hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail blind with only the assistance of his service dog, Orient.

Or the professional ballplayer who had to reconcile his shock at being traded like some commodity from the only major league team he had ever played for.

Or the woman who learned to forgive her cruel, abusive father when she was forced to care for him in her home as his life was drained by Alzheimer’s.

These were people whose stories moved and inspired me and made me look at my own life with not just a sense of hope and, eventually, to look at it through a spiritual lens.

I wanted the book to be just about them. But before I signed my book contract, my wife intervened.

“You’re going to tell you own story aren’t you, Edward?” she asked as we reviewed the contract. Sensing my reluctance, she made her case.

“You get people to bare their souls and share their stories with millions of others,” she said. “Your story will help people, too. Isn’t it time for a bit of your own medicine?” She held the pen out. “Look, Edward, I married you because of your story.”

So I made the difficult decision to include my own story in the book.

It wasn’t easy. I felt a little like the Wizard of Oz must have when the curtain was torn away. Honesty can be painful. I have greater respect than ever for the people who find the courage to help others by telling their stories in Guideposts.

And my wife was right - my story has helped others.

But mostly it has gotten me to finally look at the narrative roadmap of my life. I discovered that it is in telling our own stories that we truly find ourselves.

And it was in writing my story that I finally recognized a deeper and more ineffable plan.

When I see my life as a story, with all the richness and depth of art, the beauty and serendipity and redemption, the synchronicity of forces beyond my knowing, I understand finally that I am not necessarily the author.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Grinnan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Inspiration

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soundoff (602 Responses)
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    August 25, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  9. Jonetta

    Super infrmoaivte writing; keep it up.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  10. Muneef

    Jayalalitha, who goes by one name, demanded an apology from Chao in a letter to the US Consulate's Consul General Jennifer McIntyre.

    "This remark which smacks of racism is highly condemnable. You will agree that this remark of the vice-consul is an affront to all Tamils," Jayalalitha said.

    The Communist Party of India demanded the withdrawal of Chao for her "racist" comments and asked the government to lodge a "strong protest" with the United States.

    "The remarks show the racist nature of the official even during Barack Obama's presidency. This cannot be tolerated," party national secretary D. Raja said.
    http://www.emirates247.com/news/world/us-diplomat-s-dirty-like-tamilians-comment-sparks-indian-racism-row-2011-08-14-1.413002

    August 14, 2011 at 1:56 am |
  11. Muneef

    YOUR RELIGION IS NOT IMPORTANT
    A brief dialogue between a Brazilian theologist
    Leonardo Boff
    and the Dalai Lama.
    “Remember, the universe is the echo of our actions and our  thoughts.”
    http://www.slideshare.net/ohteikbin/the-best-religion

    August 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  12. Muneef

    Secular Morals;
    PETALING JAYA: A 20-year-old Malaysian student who was on his way to buy food to break his fast (for Ramadan) was attacked by rioters in Barking East, London.
    Wounded and bleeding on the street, he was later robbed by another gang.
    The robbery on Muhammad Asyraf Raziq Rosli which took place at 7pm London time (3am Malaysian time) yesterday
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeRNcqJChqo&w=640&h=390]

    August 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  13. Faith

    One is still responsible for everything in running his own life. Human life can be compared to a painting, a scrupture, a garden, a piece of music – a lot of things. God gave us good pleasures but we get ourselves addicted. Anything less than the glory of God is not God's design for humans. God's glory for us is knowing Him and doing His will.

    August 10, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • tallulah13

      The only true sentence in your post is the first.

      August 10, 2011 at 2:17 am |
  14. John Richardson

    @RightTurnClyde If people who DID believe in the Oracle of Delphi were trying to get her words and visions written into the law of the land, non-believers would spend as much time debunking the Oracle as we do debunking Christianity. And no, we wouldn't by some mysterious process presumably only you and perhaps the Oracle know start believing in the Oracle if we felt we had to focus on debunking that particular font of myth and irrationality. This is all very simple. You are making it needlessly hard, or are perhaps just plain too stupid to understand such a simple fact as: there's no point debunking myths that virtually no one and no one at all with any real clout believes in anyway, but MUCH point in debunking myths that large numbers of people, including powerful politicians, believe should be the guiding principles for the country's entire political culture and laws.

    August 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Missing verb alert! That should read "presumably only you and perhaps the Oracle understand"

      August 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  15. RightTurnClyde

    "@ l a u g h i n ... . .. .. ..y o u ..s a y .. ..[ S c h o o l s , ..L i b r a r i e s , ..B o o k ..s t o r e s . . . . . y e s , ..a l l ..o f ..t h o s e ..a r e ..s w , i , t , c h i n g ..t o ..b e c o m i n g ..e l e c t r o n i c a l l y ..c e n t e r e d ] ..- .. .. .. .. .. ..T h a t ..b e i n g ..t h e ..c a s e ... . .."
    " ..y o u ..t e l l ..m e ..h o w ..m a n y ..b o o k s ..h a v e ..y o u ..r e a d ..s i n c e ..h i g h ..s c h o o l ? .. ..W h a t ..a r e ..t h e ..t i t l e s ..o f ..t h r e e ..b o o k s ..y o u ..h a v e ..r e a d ..( c o v e r ..t o ..c o v e r ... . ..b e g i n n i n g ..t o ..e n d ..) ..s i n c e ..y o u ..l e f t ..s c h o o l ? .. .. ..( s e e i n g ..t h e ..m o v i e ..v e r s i o n ..i s ..n o t ..a ..r e a d i n g ) .. .."
    "@ l a u g h i n g ... . ..s i n c e ..E n g l i s h ..i s ..n o t ..o u r ..d e ..f a c t o ..l n g u a g e ..w h y ..i s ..C N N ..u s i n g ..E n g l i s h ..o n ..t h i s ..b o a r d ..a n d ..n o t ..S p a n i s h ..o r ..M a n d a r i n ..o r ..R u s s i a n ? .. ..H o w ..m a n ..l a n g u a g e s ..c a n ..y o u ..s p e a k ..f l u e n t l y ? .. ..N a m e d ..t h e m . .. .."
    "@ l a u g h i n g ... "W r i t e ..o n e ..s e n t e n c e ..i n ..t h a t ..l a n g u a g e .(or any other language than English) .. .. ..W h a t ..l a n g u a g e ..a r e ..t h e ..w o r d s .."" a d ..m a j o r e m ..d e i ..g l o r i a m "" .. ..a n d ..w h a t ..d o ..t h e y ..m e a n ? .. ..w h a t ..d o e s .."" r e s ..i p s a "" ..m e a n ..a n d ..w h a t ..l a n g u a g e ? .. ..W h a t ..l a n g u a g e ..u s e s .."" s h e h – s h e h "" .. .."
    " ..t o ..s a y ..t h a n k ..y o u ..a n d .."" b u – s h e h "" ..t o ..s a y ..y o u ..a r e ..w e l c o m e ? .. .. ..W h a t ..i s ..c h a r l a ..d e l a ..m e s a ? "" .. .."
    " ..W h a t ..d o e s .."" c e l l a ..l u n a ..m e z z a ..m a r a "" ..m e a n ..a n d ..w h a t ..l a n g u a g e ..i s ..t h a t ? .. ..W h a t ..d o e s .."" s u r ..l a ..p o n t "" ..m e a n ..a n d ..w h a t .. ..l a n g u a g e ? .. .."" h o o p s h u s ..m a c h e n ? "" .. ..w h a t ..l a n g u a g e ? .. .."" V e e – g a t e s "" .. ..- – ..w h a t ..l a n g u a g e ? "

    I'm sorry if you find my postings rude, I think you need to get thicker skin. .. yes, I can see you do not intend to be ignorant you simply are ignorant

    August 9, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      I don't find them rude rather just ignore them now. You might want to rethink your communication tactics.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      You fall under the likes of Reality....just pass over and ignore the posts. I did take this one time to respond and advise of you of this. I don't ever plan to read or post on your comments again.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Well .. golly .. that just ruins my day. Does this mean we are not friends anymore?

      August 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      RightTurnClyde

      Well .. golly .. that just ruins my day. Does this mean we are not friends anymore?

      -----
      yes, I am sorry

      August 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Laughing

      BAHAHAHA Clyde,

      You're great, really just great. Name 3 books I've read since High School that's not the movie version? I can honestly tell you it would be too many for a host of reasons. One being, that I'm actually college educated and contrary to what happened at the one school you cited, I can assure you we still read in college. But I'm going to assume you meant on my off time and not just reading for education, right? Well Right now I'm reading As.sholes Finish First by Tucker Max, just finished "I hope they serve beer in hel.l", right before then I read all the Game of Thrones books (I guess we'll have to cut out book one according to your rules because season 1 is book one), I'm also in the midst of reading the god delusion by Dawkins. One of my recent favorties are probably the Numerati, Millenials Rising, The Fourth Turning, Start-up Nation, The Big Short and a bunch of Tom Clancy and Dan Silva that I just got into. Then again I guess I really DON'T read huh?

      Also so you quote some stuff in latin, some in chinese, and some other languages. Congratualtions for learning how to use a computer and translate some stuff, well done, really.

      Also, you want me to write a sentence in another language? Hows about: Vous avez un tete avec beaucoup de merde, te-tue s'il vous plaite" does that work?

      Cool, so I guess I have the same question for you since you're reading like ALL the time right?.......Right?

      August 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Hmmm.....

      A gente só insegura insulta outros

      August 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • John Richardson

      "Vee-gates"???? You mean "wie geht's?"?

      August 9, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Hmmm.....

      Though I have to say that one many should be familiar with is argumentum ad hominem. ;-)

      August 9, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.