I recently finished my first Agatha Christie novel, after hearing my whole life about how good her mysteries are. Yes, it was good. At one point or another I thought almost every character was the murderer. The plot kept twisting through the pages in such unexpected ways that I had no choice but to check out of reality for the rest of the day in order to find out what happened. Good thing it was my day off.
One of the wonderfully frustrating things that I love and hate about books is that they take a long time to get through. A movie is fast—the action carries me along to a conclusion in a matter of hours. A book is slow (compounded for me by my slow reading pace), leaving me in suspense for ages while I wade through details and conversations and descriptions to find the next big revelation. In that sense, a book is a little more like real life, where the action doesn’t happen in a quick succession that always ties up neatly just before the credits. Real life is full of pauses—evenings and mornings and dirty dishes. A book that takes multiple days to read allows me to live inside the story longer, to enter further into the feelings of the characters who are living through the unknown. For a few days, I’m living there with them. And while a movie is always viewed from a third-person perspective, in a book I can think the characters’ thoughts with them. I can see the plot twists unfold through their eyes. Which feels familiar, because it’s how I see the plot twists unfold in my own life.
I’m no detective in an Agatha Christie novel, but I’ve lived through more than a few plot twists. Sometimes I look back and think, “how did I get here?” The life I’m living now is not what I had planned for twenty years ago. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying things haven’t always gone the way I thought they would. I’ve made my own choices and experienced the consequences, good and bad, but as Wodehouse’s inimitable character Jeeves says, “It’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”
Sounds like this year, doesn’t it? Beyond the hardship of the events themselves, there’s the sting of being at the mercy of forces outside my control. When everything goes to my plan, it’s easy to begin feeling like I’m the author of my own story. The biggest problem there is that it isn’t true. Authors are all knowing, all powerful, and able to guide the story and every event and character towards their desired ending. As much as I’d like to, I can’t do those things. I can control my own choices, but I can’t control the choices of others, and there’s really not a lot I can do about most of the events around me. I’m a character, not an author. I’m in the thick of it, trying to make the best choices I can without the advantages of omniscience and omnipotence.
If I try to act like the author of my own story, I’ll end up frustrated and angry, and probably depressed. I won’t be able to stop things going wrong, because when it comes right down to it, almost everything is outside of my control. Even the things that go right often don’t bring the results I hoped they would. I’m better off recognising that I am meant to be a character, and better again if I recognise that the story I’m in is not just my own autobiography. The universe doesn’t revolve around me and my story. My life is part of a much bigger epic that is sweeping through the ages in a slow culmination towards a really fantastic ending—I know, because I already read a few pages of the last chapter, in my Bible.
I’m glad I can live life without the pressure of trying to author it. I’m happy to be a character, written in for a specific purpose at exactly this time and place in history. What I want is to make my part in this story the very best that I can, and even when I don’t understand all the plot threads and twists I see around me, to trust that the Author of everything knows best how to write the details of his story, all the way to his grand finale.