Good Life, Good Story

Author Says To Grasp One, Understand Other

Posted: March 23, 2013

“Blue Like Jazz” author Donald Miller speaks March 21 at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall, sponsored by RISE — a part of the United Methodist Church faith community. (Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG - If you want to know how to live a good life, Donald Miller suggests understanding the elements of a good story: The protagonist in any page-turner is at least somewhat altruistic, he says.
So, when the author and public speaker came to James Madison University on Thursday, he was armed with a series of stories involving benevolence — both others’ and his own.
RISE, a United Methodist faith community in the city, teamed up with JMU’s FreeThinkers and its Creative Writing Club to plan the writer’s visit.
Miller, 41, most well-known for his book “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” has created a life-planning system to help others live better stories. He also hosts conferences, called “Storyline,” several times a year and has launched an online software package using the Storyline concept.
In his talk, Miller also shared thoughts from Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” with more than 100 people crammed into JMU’s Memorial Hall.
He said the key to experiencing meaning is simple: Work toward an altruistic ambition, share your life with others and figure out what’s redemptive about your own suffering.
“Do something with people you love that saves lives, that contributes beauty to the world,” he explained.
Miller stumbled upon Frankl’s words after going through a two-year bout with depression in his mid-30s.
When he was 35, a friend discovered a letter Miller wrote her years earlier including a list of accomplishments he hoped to reach by the age of 35. Among them were goals of becoming a New York Times best-selling author and moving to Oregon. He had satisfied all of those aims, but still found himself unhappy.
But now, with a business focused on helping others, “there’s a page-turner in my story,” he said, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Miller also told several of his friends’ stories, including that of Tom Shadyac.
A film director whose resume includes the “Ace Ventura” movies and “Bruce Almighty,” Shadyac was making several million dollars per film. But he gave away his fortune, replacing his mansion with a double-wide trailer and his expensive cars with a bicycle.
According to Miller, research has shown that people need a certain — surprisingly low — amount of money to be happy. But past that threshold, the chance of becoming less happy increases with more wealth, he said.   Current American culture attempts to convince people of the opposite — that acquiring more material goods will make them happier, he added.
“Our stories just aren’t meaningful anymore,” he said, encourageing audience members that that can change.
“There’s a fear of failure,” he said. “I just want to give you …  so much permission to fail. If you interview people who are really successful, they have just a ridiculous track record of failing.”
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