Storytelling

Everybody has a story.

I have a mentor. She has red hair, and bikes cross-country, and has an “A” type personality. Her husband is a successful businessman and she home-schools their three boys. So, kinda different from me. But one time I said to her, “Ever have one of those moments where you suddenly realize something, some important piece of information about how the world works, something everybody else assumes you’d know, and you feel a kind of cross between ‘It all makes sense now!’ and ‘I feel like an idiot’?” And she said, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean!”

Turned out, her “moment” was for the same reason as mine. We’re different, but we have that in common. We’re different, but not wholly so. We’re different in a “learn from each other” kind of way. Since she’s been my mentor, she’s told me about the early days of her marriage when they were poor and had nothing, and so I don’t feel so self-conscious about my circumstances. She told me her story, and now I understand her a little better and, by extension, I understand other people a little better.

Everybody has a story. On the flight home from my grandfather’s funeral, the plane was packed and I ended up in a middle seat, and though I felt numb (where I didn’t feel sore), I said “hi” to my seatmates, and the lady by the window turned out to be a warm and friendly frequent-flier from Long Island – she knew our pilot! – on her way back from vacation. Talking to her made the five-hour flight a little less lonely for me (and hopefully a little less boring for her). It’s easy for us Midwesterners to be resentful of folks on the Coasts, because folks on the Coast look down their noses at “flyover country”. If I hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have known that this lady was an exception.

Everybody has a story, and the stories we tell are important. Neil Gaiman writes that every person has a universe inside them, and I think he’s onto something. Both in our hopes and dreams, and where we’ve come from: we go through so much. I’ve lived in the same city my whole life. I’ve gone to the same church my whole life. I’m tempted to think I’ve got nothing to say. But I can tell you what it looks like when your brother goes bald from chemo, and I know how it feels to be snubbed by the girls at school, and I’ve had to count out my pennies to buy shampoo, and I’ve endured pain so severe that I threw up, and yes, this city-dwelling Cornhusker has, in fact, husked corn (wonderful, wonderful corn!).

Now imagine what kind of life-story my grandmother had, considering hers started with, “I was born in China”?

At my grandfather’s funeral, I heard a story I’d never heard before. And it broke my heart. Partly because it was a sad story, partly because my grandfather is no longer around to tell it. It explained a few things. It deepened Grandpa’s character. And I wonder if perhaps he was ashamed of that story. I know there are plenty of stories in my life that I’m ashamed of.

Shameful stories need to be told, too. Because we all have them. Because the thing to do with shame is learn from it. When my mentor said she knew what it was like to miss something obvious, I felt slightly less stupid. I felt slightly more hopeful. I felt that perhaps I should tell other people, in case one of them feels stupid and ashamed, so they’d know they’re not alone. One of life’s biggest lies is that we’re alone, that our situation is unique and no one else can understand. It’s a moment like dawn when someone else’s story turns out to be yours, or you tell your story and your audience says, “Oh, I know what you mean!”

We need to tell our stories. We need to tell each other what’s really going on, what’s lurking in our past and what stalks our future. We need to tell each other about the things we’ve seen, and the things we hope to see. We need to tell each other about our joys, about our sorrows, about why we are the way we are. And we need to ask. We need to listen to each other, to the stories people tell. We need to hear how things have not always been this way, how they have changed and the world has changed. We need to ask where people have been, what they’ve seen and done, and where they hope to go. They’ll change our perspective. They’ll shed light. They’ll inspire and give us hope.

It’s very hard to hate a person if we know their story. That doesn’t mean we can’t hate what they’ve done, or pity them, or be angry with them, but hate them? I tend to get an urge to find some way, any way, to help turn the narrative around. I think to myself, This could still end well. And would that not be awesome?

All stories can end well. It might involve going to place we don’t want to go, and things happening that we could never imagine, but the thing is, all our stories are ongoing. None of them is over. The ending may be written, but that ending follows what we do, what we decide, what course we take. When we share stories, we know a little better what’s possible, what places we might go, what things we could still do. We see each other more fully and live with more understanding.

When people dismiss the Bible as “a bunch of stories,” my brain goes, “Exactly!” It’s a bunch of stories, about a bunch of people: all kinds of people, who do all kinds of things. Some of them are amazing. Others aren’t so good. When I say something stupid, I think of Peter and his chronic foot-in-mouth disease. I like the Gospel of Luke, because Luke was so very geeky. There’s David and his spectacular adultery, who was called “the man after God’s own heart”. There’s Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who sacked God’s temple, burned Jerusalem to the ground, and carted Jews off to be slaves — I wonder whether he asked Daniel if he could add his story to Daniel’s book, or if Daniel asked him to contribute. Either way, he’s the last guy you’d expect to write a chapter of Holy Scripture.

Well, him and Paul. You know, the guy who used to hunt down Christians to have them dragged off and stoned. Anytime you feel like you’re unforgivable, that God must hate you, that you’re dirt and beyond redemption, look up the Book of Acts, chapter nine, and don’t miss the part where there was only one believer brave enough to talk to Paul, because the things he’d done were that bad. Paul’s story is wonderful. The genius and zeal that made him the terror of the infant Church were the same that God used to make him one of its pillars. Imagine some young Christian guy meeting Paul at the end of his life, and somebody telling him, “You know, Paul used to kill Christians,” and the young guy saying, “Yeah, right!” and Paul going, “No, actually, I did.” And the young guy would think, “The great and wise apostle who risks everything for the Gospel used to kill Christians? If that’s true, anything is possible.”

Listen to enough stories, and you’ll know that anything is possible. Anything is possible (though not everything will happen), and there is more going on in us, in our neighbors, in our friends and family, in everyone around us, then anyone could imagine. When we share stories, all of us find out a little bit more about the truth.

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