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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)
  1. a person of the Name

    The sins of the father are not the sins of the son. Like all Christians deserve foul treatment from others. Headlines this isn't new and nas been going on for years but you jump on the side of hate. Well, may God bless and you find peace in your heart.

    August 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Amistavia

      How ironic that a Christian would accuse others of being part of a hate group. You and your mystical forerunners have the blood of millions on your dirty little hands.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  2. Rainy

    It amazes me that when stories of faith and love of God appear, the comments often come from non believers. If one does not believe, why even read a story that has any sort of religion or mention of God in it? For example, I don't care for sports so I don't even look at that part of the paper, I turn the TV to another channel, I shrug my shoulders and politely change the subject. Why are non believers attracted to that which they so strongly and (often) rudely disagree? Don't get it.

    August 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Free

      One might also say that if the story is about science, like Stephen Hawking's theories, then folks shouldn't post religious comments either, but try stopping them!

      August 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      And I don't get why religious people constantly try to legislate their faith into law. For instance, gay marriage. Why are christians so opposed to giving equal rights to American citizens who pay the same taxes and obey the same laws? So many cite the bible as their excuse for discrimination, yet there is no proof that the bible is the word of god, or that any god, ever, has existed. In fact, the bible has no bearing on the rules of this nation, because our founding fathers had the wisdom to separate church and state.

      Then you have people like Mr. Perry in Texas who uses his office to promote his own religious agenda, despite, as I previously mentioned, the separation of church and state.

      Then you have your street-corner evangelists and door-to-door faith salesmen who so often interrupt the lives of others with their need to "share the word".

      Perhaps christians would not be bothered the comments of non-believers if they minded their own business and stopped bothering the non-believers.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Know What

      Rainy,

      If the National Football League or Major League Baseball wanted to control the country, pass laws, implement public policies, hinder science and affect taxation, I'll just bet you would pay attention.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Free @tallulah13 @Know What

      Excellent responses...IMO.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Amistavia

      No one attempts to insert sports into my government, and no fools try to claim that our country was founded on sports – that's why.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Free

      tallulah13
      The reasoning hovers around fundamentalist Christians claiming that marriage is a holy sacrament, like the Catholics do. A honest solution then would be for Christians to lobby government to do away with the secular, contractual and other legal elements of marriage, leaving no tax or other legal advantage to it that gay couples would find appealing.

      Of course, this would never work as gay people, being as human as everyone else, are also apt to wish for the same sanctioning of their relationships under God that straight people now enjoy. However, necessity is the mother of invention, so Christian sects will arise to cater to these consumers as they have for all others. I have no gripe against all of religion, just religion that fails to evolve to the changing social environment, and ends up hurting people in the process.

      August 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Rainy:
      Your analogy is imprecise. It would be more fitting if it was: I am not a baseball player, so I don't read the sports page. See why that logic is flawed?
      You've made a false assumption about non-believers. Not believing in gods, not living our lives according to someone else's religion, is not the same as not wanting to be informed about religion. You seem to think that we are not interested in religion. But that can't be further from the truth because we are interested in the psychology, the personal impact, the social ramifications and the way religion is used politically in our respective countries. It's a distinction that many believers don't understand.

      August 9, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  3. a person of the Name

    Wow, once again a lot hate on here and a little bit of praise. Some of you non-believer get on here and all you do is bash Christians like your the first to do so. Ya'll speak of free will and all you do is bash ppl that don't think like you.

    August 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • a person with a Brain

      Christians have been doing the bashing and worse for centuries. Get used to reaping what you and yours sowed, bi-t-ch. It's payback time to you and the sick supersti-tion that you've tried to pe-rpetuate.

      August 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Why should religion be safe from ridicule? Last time I checked we live in the U.S where we are free to bash any idea as stupid as Christianity.

      August 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      or any idea as stupid as spiffy
      spiffy does not exist

      August 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Free

      Now, had this or some other guy turned his life around by following their horoscope, using new-age crystals, eating rhino horn, or something else like this you and others like you would be adding your criticisms to ours, right? You likely just have a bias against all other forms of superst.ition save your own, whereas we treat all forms equally.

      That said, there really isn't anything wrong with being civil and perhaps even starting a response with something like "Glad that you managed to turn your life around, but if you are implying that only a faith in God could have accomplished this then I must disagree with you." Treat others as you would wish to be treated. After all, just because Jesus didn't originate the Golden Rule doesn't make it a bad idea to follow it.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Amistavia

      There is considerably more evidence present to suggest spiffy exists than god.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      @amistavia
      produce it!

      August 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Herbert- the post is his evidence. Now produce evidence to the existence of your sky fairy.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Free

      Guys
      There is at least one poster here who call themselves 'God', but few, believers and non-believers alike, will assume that this is actually the deity talking to us. However, few of us can imagine there being nobody behind some computer someplace typing under the name 'spiffy.' For 'spiffy' not to be written by a real human being will require just as big a miracle as 'God' being written by God. I have evidence of humans who use the internet to post comments to blogs, including my personal example, so I have no reason to be skeptical of 'spiffy's' reality, but I have no evidence of there being a real God. Not absolute proof by no means, but a more than convincing argument nonetheless.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      @amistavia
      No problem. using your own criteria,the writings on an uncontrolled blog.Their are many believers posts testifying to the existence of God ,there is even a poster identified as" God".By your own reasoning there is more than sufficient evidence for God!
      it is unlikely that spiffy exists

      August 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  4. David

    I am not much for God, but do enjoy Guidpost – and if it helps some people that is great- the bible even helps some people!

    August 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • gozer

      "helps some people" -yeah, those in need of fuel for a fire, or maybe to get a couple of extra inches in height if you stand on it.

      August 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @David

      Like any other book, whether from philosophy, theology, etc... the Bible certainly does have bits of advice that can be useful.

      Don't know that any of the advice in there is actually anything new, but there are here and there... 'useful' bits to think about.

      However, there is, IMO... a whole lotta' cr@p in there to weed through.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Free

      David

      "A man does not die for something which he himself does not believe in."

      Consider that a wise comment? Well, if you do, then that is proof that any book can hold wisdom because Adolf Hitler wrote that in Mein Kampf. Sure, the Bible can be read and followed for good, but everyone who reads the Bible believes that they have a good outcome where we all know that there are a lot of evil things done in the Bible's name.

      In many ways, it's like nuclear energy: The Bible can either be weaponized against people, or used to help them. Both uses are considered 'good' by some, but even when intended to help people there is always the chance of a 'melt down' and people still getting hurt, yes?

      August 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  5. The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

    Robert Jamieson did write on, August 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm; “I'm afraid that is totally untrue, Don. A Cochrane Review of studies showed that "no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA" in treating alcoholism. The rate of recovery in AA is below the rate of spontaneous remission, especially over the long term. Far more people quit on their own than through AA, and even AA's statistics prove it. Basically, you finally chose to quit while you were in AA. Had you done that while attending a group the promoted juggling as the cure – don't drink, and juggle away the urge – you would be telling us about the wonders of juggling as a cure. It's the fallacy of false attribution.

    As my being a member of Alcoholics’ Anonymous, I dare make a “challenge” regarding Don. A Cochrane’s “studies” Review where you quoted Don stating “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA” The Use of a double negative in use of your quotation dares to show that “experimental studies” have not bore out any negative nor positive conclusion what-so-ever! My departure from a potentiality of a life-Long career of imbibing alcoholic based fermentations of liquidities came to an end prior to my becoming part of A.A. Such a comradely of people meeting together to exercise their “voices” in a meeting of likeminded fellowships is in matter of factualness, a breeding place toward the potential progressives of the positive self made thought controlling mechanisms. Nothing more and nothing less.

    J.R. wrote in the aboveness, “Had you done that while attending a group the promoted juggling as the cure – don't drink, and juggle away the urge – you would be telling us about the wonders of juggling as a cure. It's the fallacy of false attribution.” I, kind hearted JR have “juggled” my want and desire to leave the “bottle” due in part of my social awareness being elevated by Acts of Coincidences. AA members juggle with their mind each and every day to avoid the potentials of once again taking up the bottle..

    August 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • John Richardson

      "JR wrote in the aboveness" Yeesh. Why do you insist on prattling on and on in a language you haven't even begun to master?

      August 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @John R.

      LOL !!! Hey pal, you know... I've been trying to break you of that bad habit of yours of "writing in the aboveness" 😀

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Really, what tripe.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  6. Mary Prior

    Thanks, Eward, for sharing your soul. Most inspiring; encouraging. I look forward to reading the book.
    I read and wouldn't be without Guidposts. Keep up the good work.
    God bless.
    Mary

    August 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  7. All Religion Is Evil

    Grinnan is correct in saying that we are hard-wired to be storytellers. It's one of our basic traits that dovetailed synergistically with being social, inquisitive, mostly rational, tool-using, aquisitional, territorial, and promiscuous, and allowed us to be highly successful as a species, We are also inherently receptive audiences for storytelling because that's the method by which knowlege gets passed to other members of the group. Unfortunately, storytelling has a downside – false stories can be transmitted in the same way that accurate information can. Some false stories persist and grow to the point they inspire all manner of destructive irrationality, as we can easily see in our human-dense world today.

    August 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  8. gozer

    For a collection of fictional storytelling by many authors spanning centuries, try the bible. But It's not for children; you'll find the fictional deity that it describes to be pretty gruesome and nasty.

    August 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. someoneelse

    @John: wrong.

    August 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  10. ChandleeBryan

    Great piece.

    I've been fortunate enough to study storytelling through Narativ (www.narativ.com), a New York based storytelling consultancy that provides corporations and individuals with training on the art of storytelling.

    One of the things that I've taken away from Narativ is that the act of listening to stories is as - if not more important - than the telling of stories themselves. We miss a lot when we aren't open to fully listening.

    Learning to better listen to - and tell stories - has also improved my life greatly. Thank you, Edward Grinnan, for the risks you took in sharing your story, and for the career you've made in sharing the stories of others.

    August 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tim Jordan

      Spammy much?

      August 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Frogist

      @ChandleeBryan: Thanks for sharing that! I think that's very true. People underestimate the power of listening. I also love stories from This American Life.

      August 9, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  11. mary

    Inspiring, moving, just wonderful! Thanks CNN.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  12. Evangeline

    I read this book – it is fantastic.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  13. Fred

    Amistavia, I'm an atheist. You're a jerk.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Amistavi

      Congratulations. Are you a drunk too?

      August 7, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • DDWashington

      It sounds more like you are the jerk Fred.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Dennis

      @ Frank: It sounds like you need a drink.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      @ Fred,

      Don't you dare Fred claim to be an Atheist of high regards! Your patronization of namelabelling someone to be a "jerk" is an Act of childhood fantasia you most likely have yet to rid yourself of! I know a many an Atheist and they don't lay the name labelling game of fruitless witticisms!

      August 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • heliocracy

      Liony, trying to sound smart by using flowery language of made-up words has the opposite effect.

      August 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Really, who has that Idiot Translator Ring. I can't even begin to decipher Lamb-brain's post.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  14. Kimmy Frank

    Fantastic story. Thank-you CNN for something positive today!

    August 7, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  15. Dennis

    I completely understand the thought of not wanting to tell the painful story. Sometimes we don't want to minimize the accomplishments and the struggles of others, so we hold back. I look forward to reading the book as much as I look forward to reading Guideposts each time. God uses our foibles in powerful ways and at the time we don't understand why we have to experiece them. Congratulations on getting to the point where you can share your story, not about how far you had fallen, but about how far our awesome God has taken you.

    God Bless

    August 7, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      @ Dennis,

      Such kind words of clarity Dennis! "May GOD and the King of the Gods and Goddesses, the LORD Christ Jesus be ever in your corner of this world of trying times! Love and Peace."

      August 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  16. The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

    Patrick H wrote on August 7, 2011 at 10:11 am, “What ever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with our selves, our resentments or our self pity? Selfishness-self-centeredness! That we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self pity we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. - So our troubles we think are of our own making. They arise out of ourselves and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, although he does not think so. Above everything we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must or it kills us." Quote from page 62 Alcoholic Anonymous”

    “Most of us” alcoholics, kind Patrick H. are yes, concerned with the Self , be it “resentmentations” or Acts of “self pity”. The “root” of anyone’s’ frailties is found in either fearing GOD or denying GOD even though there is a third way, “Loving GOD for HIS Tenderness and much Mercy in giving Us All our spiritual and social and cultured freedoms!”. To be “rid of the selfishness” aspect of individualism is not a righteous reason Patrick. We are socially entranced and culturally enhanced in one’s “personality traits” wherein we dilly and dally about our dailinesses none the wiser to one’s own Worded manifestations always being a part and parcel all the Time be we awake or be we asleep! Our Brainyards are in constant motion whether we realize it or not! It is that only through one’s becoming socially active that we become more “steadfast” in one’s practicing the “spoken word” such as in Alcoholics Anonymous does have! I too Patrick know of AA and I have been Sober since September 5th, 2,009. For a person to become an individual “Free of the alcoholic trails” progressive structures like in AA are a worthy endeavor and I find no fault through its’ inception.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • John Richardson

      @Lame Lion: Will you PLEASE learn how to write!?!?!?!

      August 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's an insurmountable task for her. She's dumber than a box of hair.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  17. bobbydee

    I want to read this guy's book. I remember Guideposts...mainly reading it in some waiting room in the doctor's office. I enjoyed the stories. I mean a blind man and his dog hiking the Appalachian Trail is more uplifting than all this cynicism and ranting that seems to be in fashion in the comments. As Jackson Nicholson put it "you're a disgrace to depression."

    August 7, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  18. lhayes

    You obviously don't know much about recovering from addiction. Addicts are not weak, feeble, or pathetic; they're sick. There's abundant help if they can seek it out. Human cruelty is hardly new to this society; those who deny the humanity of addicts are as sick as those they disdain.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Nothing But Smiles

      Ihayes.....I know WE'RE not, but WE are often accused of it. That's what my comment was saying. Regarding what I know about recovery, I'm over 8 years sober. It's all good. Peace. 🙂

      August 7, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      lhayes wrote, "You obviously don't know much about recovering from addiction. Addicts are not weak, feeble, or pathetic; they're sick. There's abundant help if they can seek it out. Human cruelty is hardly new to this society; those who deny the humanity of addicts are as sick as those they disdain."

      Oh contrair mon' ahmee! Addicts are sick with weakness and sick with feebleness and sick with self-thought values of patheticisms. "True Acoholics" that have a physical need for alcohol are not like those who are not physically addicted but drink to be social in their cultured circles of mass relationships. To put Addiction into one word being "sick" is but an individual's lack of understanding the very natures of addictions.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  19. LivewithFlair

    Bravo! Thank you for your courage and love to share your story with us. I teach memoir writing and blog daily because I believe that our stories can heal us. Telling mine every day heals me, and I know it might heal another. Thank you!! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com

    August 7, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  20. Nothing But Smiles

    Print an article about people with addiction and people can't wait to get in there and tell the addict how weak, feeble and pathetic they are. I see it as a pathetic act to do so. The cruelness of some is a testament to our failing society.

    August 7, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • lhayes

      (Sorry; this was intended to reply to Nothing But Smiles, not Mr. Grinnan.) You obviously don't know much about recovering from addiction. Addicts are not weak, feeble, or pathetic; they're sick. There's abundant help if they can seek it out. Human cruelty is hardly new to this society; those who deny the humanity of addicts are as sick as those they disdain.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • someoneelse

      Actually, our kindness is what destroyed the country. There is a difference between helping people out of jams and enabling their consistently bad behaviours. Our entire social security system is to lenient. We have created a society of users and weak people, many of which we would be much better without.

      August 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Frogist

      @someoneelse: Sounds like you have a final solution for all that.

      August 9, 2011 at 11:04 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.