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How we create and shape our life stories

By Martha Steger

When it came out last November, the new book’s title caught my eye: The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime. What about our lives is fictitious, I wondered?

But as I thumbed through the book — peppered with complex scientific and spiritual concepts made accessible, even entertaining — I noted the author was Richmond’s Dr. Sandra Levy-Achtemeier. I knew from past experience that she was far from a glib how-to writer with yet another book on the need to “reinvent” ourselves.

In fact, she’s well known in medical, academic, government and religious fields. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, she taught medical psychology at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University medical schools.

In her first book, Behavior and Cancer, she examined a broad range of psychological and social factors that directly and indirectly affect cancer risk and treatment success.

At the National Cancer Institute at NIH, she served as chief of the Behavioral Medicine Branch. After that, she directed programs at the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, all the while publishing numerous articles in scientific journals and contributing to books.

But by the time I first heard her speak — after the publication of her book Flourishing Life — Levy-Achtemeier had re-written her own life story by becoming an Episcopal priest.

So I asked her: what exactly do you mean by the “fiction of our lives”?

What she was referring to is the way that our brains “fill in the gaps in our memory, in a sense fictionalizing our lives,” said Levy-Achtemeier, who doesn’t want to reveal her age, saying only that she’s in her late 60s and “middle ageless.”

“I’m not talking about the notion of ‘reinventing’ oneself, which suggests a change in who you were previously, so much as I’m talking about building further on your core values to create your life story.”

Paul Broughton, a parishioner at St. John’s on Church Hill, where Levy-Achtemeier serves as associate priest, said, “As a Ph.D. psychologist with a profound love of life and song, and as a beloved priest and spiritual counselor, Sandi is obviously perfectly prepared for scientific and humanist insight into our life stories.”

A multifaceted life

Despite the impressive resume, her accomplishments haven’t been in a straight-line, natural progression. She suffered what some people would see as setbacks along the way, but she used her life events to work through identity issues in what she saw as a spiritual longing.

“I’d been raised as a Protestant, but when I was a senior in high school, I converted to Roman Catholicism,” she said. “I was attracted to the ritual and symbolism of Catholicism, and so took it upon myself to become Catholic — much to my parents’ horror.”

She spent her freshman year at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, with the intent of becoming a nun. But that all changed when “I began to date a Notre Dame boy, whom I married when I dropped out of college in the middle of my junior year because I was bored with school.

“Too young, as it turned out,” she now says, referencing a familiar theme of the 1960s. She returned to college, with her husband’s support, when their younger son was six months old. She went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology with a minor in religious studies at Indiana University.

But the couple divorced after 11 years of marriage. “without any enmity and remaining on good terms,” she added.

While she was traveling around the world, giving papers in the area of behavioral medicine and psychoneuroimmunology, she credits her mentor and second husband of 35 years — psychology professor Leon Levy, 18 years her senior — with suggesting the ordained ministry to her.

She said she “responded to my deepest core values” by leaving academia and heading for seminary to become an Episcopal priest.

Ordained in 1996, she landed in Richmond as rector of St. Mark’s on the Boulevard the following year, where parishioners praised her transformative effect at a time when the congregation needed direction. Average Sunday attendance almost doubled during the eight years she served there.

One of the parishioners, Matt Gaffney, who served on the search committee that called her to the church, said, “We were impressed by her intellect, compassion and organizational abilities. She delivered.”

Her father died soon after 9/11. Shortly before that, the loss of her husband, Leon, to Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother’s death at about the same time (at age 101) led to a period of deep self-reflection and life-examination.

Turning inward

During the summer of 2003, while on sabbatical in Cambridge, England, she starting work on what was to become Imagination and the Journey of Faith. To satisfy her growing desire to write, and wanting to be fair to St. Mark’s, she decided the following year that it was time to leave her full-time position.

Another very supportive partner and third husband — Paul “Bud” Achtemeier, Union Theological Seminary professor emeritus and well-known biblical scholar — died in 2013. A nourishing caregiver, Levy recalls crushing medication capsules to mix into soft food during his hospice care at home.

“We knew his prostate cancer — which he fought for 16 years or so — had recurred when we married, but we hoped it could be controlled. Alas, that disease finally won, to my great sadness.”  

Her book Flourishing Life was a further development of her thoughts on loss and grieving, as well as gratitude for “the community of support that has supplied a big picture for me, as a rock to stand on,” she said.

“The fact that I was walking into widowhood was another element that informed my writing, and obviously was of major importance in shaping my story as I am living my life.”

Levy-Achtemeier now considers herself a full-time writer, though she’s a priest associate at St. John’s on Church Hill.

The Rev. Laura Inscoe, former rector of St. John’s, said the church’s leaders “decided on the honorary term ‘theologian-in-residence’ — used by a few other churches across the country — to reflect Sandi’s scholarly and teaching roles.”

Levy-Achtemeier describes herself as an introvert — “like many if not most writers” — but one who has learned to “rise to the occasion of working a room and speaking in public to groups large and small.”

She heads to the mountains to break away and replenish her inner life. She recommends Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Her introvert personality makes her the good listener required for successful priesthood. Karla Hunt, a member of St. John’s, said she cherishes Levy-Achtemeier’s “friendship and wise counsel.”

Speaking to boomers

Each of her books is a blending of her training in psychology, evolutionary neuroscience and theology — all very relevant to recent professional trends in treating the whole person.

“We make meaning,” Levy-Achtemeier said, “but life [inherently] has meaning, according to the world’s three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Without God, people often embrace art, music, literature and theater for meaning.”

In her latest book, The Fiction of Our Lives, she offers her take on “what it means to be human — from our genes to the culture we shape, as it in turn shapes us.

“Your story is shaped by the songs of your youth, by the stories you read, by the selection of companions, symbols and narratives that your culture provides as a menu for you to choose from,” Levy-Achtemeier said.

The book’s chapters take up universal categories of existential concern — friendship, knowledge, religion, comfort, love, joy — with which all songs and stories worldwide are ultimately concerned. In each chapter, biographical sketches of people from Levy-Achtemeier’s life help anchor the cross-cultural concerns in reality and focus the chapter’s topic.

Speaking to her fellow early boomers, each chapter divides into a “back then” of boomers’ early years and a “now” of middle age.

The Woodstock generation will hear and see familiar protest milestones from Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer” and the slogan, “Make love, not war,” as well as Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You on, Boy?” about the development of a moral sense.

The final chapters of the book take George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as musical touchstones for dealing with loss in our lives through the comfort of the familiar and the many forms of love in which we have shared.

A spiritual turn

But ultimately, it’s her strong belief in transcendence that’s critical to The Fiction of Our Lives: “Listening to God’s call, and engaging ourselves with his impingement upon our lives.”

She wonders what happens when the culture no longer provides a full menu to draw from? It’s something she grapples with in her blog post, “Is Social Media Draining Our Brains?” on her website, www.sandralevy.net.

“What happens when we engage in world-making through interactive computer games such as MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and cease to engage with the everyday reality of our shared communal world outside our door? What happens to our sense of self and our sense of a coherent life story over time?”

Given that our genetic makeup is slow to evolve, we must rely, she said, on “our brains’ neural networks…as they’re continually being rewired over our individual lifetimes as a result of our daily experiences.”

She suggests the daily experiences of “joining a book club, reading an actual newspaper, talking to wise others — those who inspire us, listening to the great music of our heritage, and opening our minds in silence to that Transcendent Being within whose ultimate story we pass our days.”

No doubt we will be hearing more about this from the prolific, thoughtful Sandra Levy-Achtemeier.