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)
  1. KingdomCome

    The writer says "honesty is painful."
    I agree that sometimes it can be painful to examine flaws about ourselves...
    On the other hand.... there is a great freedom that comes from resting in that place of honesty and reflecting upon/examining our flaws.... there is an even greater freedom that comes with humbling yourself and sharing your imperfections with others... not for self glorification but rather to encourage others in their life journey... kudos to Edward for the courage he had to share his personal story...

    August 7, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Frogist

      @Kingdom Come: I agree wholeheartedly. It is a terribly difficult process to be honest especially with yourself. And the apparent benefit is not always apparent to yourself or anyone else unfortunately. But it is part of becoming who we are. It is virtually inescapable.

      August 9, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  2. Jay

    Don't people like Amistavia have anything better to do with their lives? I mean, trolling the CNN comments section of faith and religion articles trying to get a rise out of people?

    It's sadly pathetic.

    And Amistavia please educate yourself. Down syndrome is not a disease.

    August 7, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • Amistavia

      Sure, if you want to be politically correct, you can say that Down Syndrome is not a disease. Of course that means that you consider all of the symptoms of this "genetic disorder" to be perfectly ideal for your child to have.

      August 7, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  3. Dr Bill Toth

    THere are several really good books on "HOW" to tell your story...the best I've read so far is "Tell to Win" by Peter Guber. The key is knowing when and WHY to tell your story. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    August 7, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  4. Margaret

    Amistavia, you've closed your mind to whatever is not in the physical world and will not allow yourself to think beyond that. All cutlures have known there is a God. Btw, Down Syndrome is not a disease.

    August 7, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Amistavia

      So you're suggesting I think beyond evidence and common sense?

      August 7, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Margaret

      I'm suggesting you look beyond what you perceive as evidence and common sense. If all cultures–groups of people who never knew others existed much less communicated with them–all realized there is a Supreme Being then what does common sense tell you?

      August 7, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • Amistavia

      My common sense tells me that you had better repent of your heathen ways and offer a sacrifice to Zeus before he strikes you down with lightning. There is, after all, just as much evidence for his existence as there is for the Christian god.

      August 7, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Arvn Huac

      All cultures have known there is a God? Boy, that's a total distortion. Some believe there are many gods. And the vast majority say that only their God is correct, that believing in any others will cause you to be punished. Moreover, these different gods have been the cause of much war and torture and oppression through the millenia.

      Margaret, do not pretend that these gods are all different faces on the same being, because they are mutually exclusive. They do not tolerate each other, and their characteristics are incompatibly different.

      Why would a true deity create all these other ones to confuse people? It would not, of course. The reason they are all different is that they are all invented by man.

      August 7, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  5. Reality

    "Guideposts is a Christian-faith based non-profit organization founded in 1945 by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Raymond Thornburg, and Peale's wife, Ruth Stafford Peale. The Guideposts organization is headquartered in Carmel, New York, with additional offices in New York City, Chesterton, Indiana, and Pawling, New York. The primary activities of the Guideposts organization are publishing Guideposts magazine and maintaining an outreach ministry service."

    Putting the kibosh on said organization:

    Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.
    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/"magic" man would do or say?

    August 7, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  6. Thanks

    Thanks for sharing your story, may souls find renewed hope. This world so needs HOPE!

    August 7, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  7. Judy

    many of the responses above are from those out of touch with their spiritual self. Why condemn a man for telling his story, for being honest, and finding redemption in doing so. Whatever happen to freedom of speech. We all have stories some more colorful than others. It is those who can not speak loudly of themselves that are hiding behind all the tangible things in their lives. It would really be something to take away the stuff and see how fully one can live....I wonder. Or if not hiding being the tangible maybe its all anger and fluff.

    August 7, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  8. patrick

    what – just because he is a yale grad then he desearves everything he gets – shallowand jealous minds folks

    compassion and acceptance is what your missing

    wake up to reality – the world and especially you are moving in the wrong direction...

    will power – resolve etc...what the hell does that have to do with helping others – nothing

    its all about you is it not ? NO ITS NOT

    August 7, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  9. cm

    There are no truths – just stories.....Zuni proverb. And so it is.

    August 7, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  10. karrie pittsburgh

    I used to subscribe to Guideposts and read it faithfully for many years. I still use what I experienced from the stories to guide my life.

    I had to quit subscribing in the 1990s however, when their organization kept sending harassing mail to my parents to 'donate just a little bit more, we know you can' to some cause Guideposts supported, when my parents had reached retirement and VERY FIXED INCOME age. My mother had become severely sight impaired and retired early, father had cancer. Nothing extraordinary, just the average stuff one hears about in the middle class struggles of aging in America.

    It permanently tarnished the image of Guideposts for me. It felt like my parents were being passive-aggressively bullied. I wrote a letter to TPTB (I think it was Mr. Grinnan) on my parents' behalf and never received a response. So I didn't renew my subscription, I felt like I would be supporting an untrustworthy group if I had.

    August 7, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  11. Isabel

    I love people like Amistavia, who are not content to just have their views but will only feel strong by hiding behind their computer screens, stalking people on the Internet to bully them with criticism. People like Amistavia only feel "strong" by bullying the "weak"...True strength of mind does not feel threatened by alternative or opposing world views. True strength of mind allows other views because people of strength are out in the world, living good lives.

    August 7, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Amistavia

      Trust me, my views are the same and phrased the same way in real life. As far as respecting other viewpoints, I do all the time. Religion isn't one of those viewpoints, however, because it is a viewpoint lacking all evidence to support itself.

      August 7, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Javier

      Isabel, I suggest you read your own bible:

      "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." – 1 Timothy 2:12

      August 7, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  12. Amistavia

    Stories like this and groups like AA are just replacing one drug with another. Personally, I think these people are less destructive and dangerous as drunks than they are wallowing in religious fantasy. Either way, the root cause of addiction to alcohol or religion is the same: a weak mind.

    August 7, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • patrick

      To all of you – addition is a disease

      Amistavia – addiction has nothing to do with will power – strong minds are usually
      those who become addicated. People in AA don't talk about God – they talk about spirit – higher power – source.

      Colin – down and out then finding "Jesus" – well it is source they found why dont you look for some yourself it is out there for the talking looks like you can use some.

      May you all see happiness in your lives and do your neighbors as you would do yourselves.

      August 7, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Amistavia

      Down syndrome is a disease. Sickle cell anemia is a disease. Addiction is a consequence.

      August 7, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • Wendy

      Amistavia, Is it your intention to try and change people's beliefs or is it your intention to spread yours? If atheism is your belief, do you try to spread it to those who do not agree? Is that why you are here? You of all people then should know that religion is faith based. It's the belief that God, or a spirit or even as a lot of scientists would say an intelligent design work in our lives that gives us comfort. Do I believe in God? I would say that I don't discount it. I do believe in myself and my abilities and my way of thinking. Do I believe we have the power within each and everyone of us to change our way of being, simply by affirming what we want? Absolutely! Whether that is done by God or our inner self I cannot say. I no more believe that religious groups should have any say over how I live my life or judge me or try to change my way of thinking no more than I think an Atheist should. It's a personal decision, and who am I or you to change it. I will say that I never judge or will never condemn a person for personal beliefs, that's just being human. I do believe that Atheists, Agnostics and any other religious or non-religious person, whether it be Ali or Buddha, all have within them to be decent humans.

      August 7, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Amistavia

      Wendy, you are unfortunately the exception, not the rule.

      August 7, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • cm

      Like you are a happy, well adjusted atheist. I have yet to meet one and you are a poor example so bad to be you.

      August 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • cm

      Down syndrome
      A congenital disorder, caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome, in which the affected person has mild to moderate mental retardation, short stature, and a flattened facial profile. Also called trisomy 21.

      August 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • pfeffernusse

      Funny, cm, because I've found some of the most unhealthy people are people of faith. They are so mired in their belief that they can't get well, even with help. Atheists tend to be very well-adjusted because they don't rely on a fairy tale to provide purpose to their life.

      August 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  13. HollyAnnG

    This sounds like a fantastic book. Good for Edward Grinnan for finding the courage to tell his own story.

    August 7, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  14. Lonny

    It's funny how people who have not much faith in the common good, will read these columns with some curiosity and then spew hatred. God is using you as well and thank you for that.

    August 7, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • Amistavia

      Is that the same god whose existence lacks all evidence? Religion is just another drug for weak minds.

      August 7, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • pfeffernusse

      Soo...disagreeing with someone and pointing out the weaknesses in their viewpoint is "spewing hate"?

      Good to know.

      August 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  15. Howie76

    All I see is a Yale graduate who wants some attention. Why wait this long to tell your story?? The guide post stories are out of touch with today's society and simplistic.

    August 7, 2011 at 6:42 am |
  16. Bob Ramos

    I found this very good. I have had similar experiences. If this book can be found, I will buy and read it. Who knows?

    August 7, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  17. Joshua

    It's sad that cnn has become a haven for radical God-haters. It seems that our western society has turned against itself, and insisted upon suicide. Good for it ... we'll see you 100 years down the road in mediocrity ... it will be hilarious.

    August 7, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • Amistavia

      Maybe you should pray about it. I'm sure that will fix everything. LOL, what a bunch of delusional fools you christians are.

      August 7, 2011 at 6:46 am |
  18. Doug

    2 different Dougs

    August 7, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  19. Doug

    I can't read this kind of crap.. Who wants anything to do with religious hater crap... So these stories of lies saved you.. Good for you.. . Now don't pass those lies to others today.. OK>... Thanks !

    August 7, 2011 at 5:41 am |
  20. Colin

    This is interesting. One of the more common roads to religious nonsense is an inability to function in society. How many times have we read of somebody being down and out on drugs or alcohol and suddenly "finding Jesus". I am yet to hear of a prisoner or other loser who does not grasp for the lowest common denominator, the simple, mindless, easy-to-understand sky god, who will magically solve all their problems, in this life or the next.

    I guess, when all else is lost, the make-believe will beckon, because it forgives all, allows one to pretend they have their act together when they don't, and will, in all respects, be exactly what one wants it to be.

    At times I wish my mind was small enough, and my ability to self-delude large enough, that I could crawl into this matchbox of self-deception and cuddle up with my sky-gods. Unfortunately, reality strikes and I realize that it is all up to me. Comforting and all as invisible friends are, they don't hold a candle to accepting self responsibility and holding the pen to the script of one's own destiny.

    August 7, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • gloria joy

      Colin, bless you for the honesty. Know what? When you take your last breath you will finally 'believe'. Say all you want now but you cannot, will not escape the moment of truth. None of us will.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:34 am |
    • Joshua

      Yes, colin ... we all know fully well that you're the end all be all of your magnificent life.

      Unfortunately some people aren't God.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:41 am |
    • Doug

      And that is the saddest story of all.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:44 am |
    • joy glory!

      Yea that'll convince him gloria! "Bless you", and then spit in his face? Well done.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:49 am |
    • tallulah13

      While I agree with much of what you said, I know many very intelligent people who believe in a god. Many of them don't agree that it is a god related to any church, but they believe in something. They all have their reasons, and I don't feel the burning need to take that comfort away.

      However, I agree that some people are just grasping at what makes them feel that they are special and accepted. I also agree that while people pray to god for help, it's always humans that do the heavy lifting. It would be comforting to foist my problems on something else, but life doesn't work like that, at least not a responsible life. It's a wonderful thing to be accountable for your own life and actions, and life is more precious when you know you only have this one to live.

      August 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Colin: I think there is some truth in what you say. When people are down and out and they actually have a desire not to be, as opposed to the ones who have no desire left and are suicidal, they will grasp at anything as a way out. I understand that need from the outside. It makes sense. The human will to live is powerful but sometimes so intangible I think it requires a foothold. And a lot of people find that foothold in belief in a supernatural force. It's hard to take issue with something that has saved lives by the mere fact that it offers hope where none could be found before. What I do take issue with is what happens after that. When those same people latch onto all other aspects of religion as well: megalomania, domination, "moral" intransigence. Those same people don't then realize that they are using the hope they found as a means of erasing the hopes and joys of other people's lives. That's when it becomes dangerous and an appeal must be made for that person to recognise hope and positivity in other people's lives so they recognise the damage that they are doing.
      I think as a non-believer, it is important to remember how vital hope is and how independent that emotion is from logic. But I think the believer must remember how it felt to lose hope and recognise that is what they are doing when pressing their religion on someone else at the exclusion of everything else.

      August 9, 2011 at 9:53 am |
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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.