“So what’s your story?” asked the doctor as I groggily wandered the corridors of the recovery center after a colonoscopy.
“Just chillin’,” I slurred.
Of course, that’s not my story. That may have been the story of that distinct moment in time, but my story – my real story – spans decades. It has had many twists, turns, tragedies and triumphs, mishaps, mistakes and regrets; joys, elations and peak experiences. It has inched along in fits, starts, sprints and stops and what at times seemed like the end, only to limp along for a while before rising to a crescendo. And it’s not over yet.
I began thinking about our stories recently when a friend suffered a terrible loss, and another a terrifying incident. When we were able to connect, they needed to tell the story of what happened. I listened to every detail, not out of politeness, but of a genuine need to know. I needed to hear their story as much as they needed to tell it. I wanted to be a part of their pain and fear – to know how to respond and how I could help, if at all, sure – but to somehow help them to dissipate and diffuse it. I wanted them to be able to offload just a tiny bit of the burden of carrying their difficult story, by sharing it with someone who cared about and supported them. For a brief moment in time, their story became a small part of my story.
Mediators learn the mantra, and always have this in mind as we guide parties to what we hope is resolution: “Listen not to respond, but to understand.” Most of us (especially when we’re in an argument or discussion about which we have strong feelings) listen to answer, if we listen at all. We wait the prescribed “polite” amount of time (or just ignore etiquette and interrupt) while the other person speaks, anticipating our turn to jump in and tell them why they’re wrong, or while we try to think of something to say next that furthers our agenda, rather than considering their point of view. We’re forming our response instead of focusing on what’s being said. Not just the words, but the tone, the inflection, the volume, the facial expressions and hand gestures, the feelings – all of the ways we communicate when we talk. It’s crucial to the resolution of the discussion that all parties feel heard and understood. Without this, we’re talking at rather than with one another, with no information coming through. We’re not truly hearing one another’s story.
After my best friend Steve died suddenly, I had to tell my story. I had to tell my story. I was so close to a tragedy involving one of the people I loved most in the world, and had so many feelings – grief, loss, pain, tremendous guilt, shame, regret – that I needed to process it for years. Years. On one of the recent anniversaries of his passing his daughter and I had dinner together and each told the story – from our own vantage points. We went through that terrible day, practically minute by minute, asking one another questions and telling one another our thoughts and feelings. Ten years later. We still remember our story of that tragic day – in vivid detail. She was the most important person with whom I really needed to share my story, and to share hers. It brought each of us a little more healing.
Of course, not all stories are individual in nature. Storytellers – both those who synthesize and report news, and those who deal not in facts but entertaining fantasies – exist in every culture. They have been revered and reviled throughout the ages. They bring us enjoyment, fear, excitement, sadness, anger – all the feels – with their abilities to spin tales and hold us at rapt attention, or relate what they see as important or necessary information. They speak to us with words, music, dance, acting, pictures and all forms of communication. Without them our lives would be bland, colorless and silent. They are our collective voices, and they speak for all people. They reflect our world, in ways that others may not be able to do themselves, in ways that bring us enlightenment and understanding. And they become part of our collective consciousness – 1001 Nights, King Arthur, Mother Goose, Tolkein, Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and so many other stories that we all know by heart and which, in times before widespread literacy, were passed down for generations to thrill or to teach basic moral principles.
Our culture – every culture – is based on stories. So many of the conflicts between us begin when our stories conflict. Interpersonal disagreements often happen because there are “two sides to every story.” The “he said/she said” situations that aren’t usually due to one person lying and the other telling the truth, but rather the differing perspectives of the people involved. Many times they are each telling the truth as they see it. The objective truth, if there could ever be such a thing, is usually somewhere in between. Clashes between and within cultures are similar – they happen when there are differing stories about the same events, differing perceptions of how we should interact with one another or of what’s right or wrong, or what really happened during a particular incident.
This is particularly true of things that can’t be proven, such as religious beliefs, which are often based on stories written thousands of years ago. Some people believe the stories that have been handed down for centuries as truths, but not everyone agrees on how they should be interpreted, or which ones are legitimate, and conflict ensues. This leads to chaos and a breakdown of the cultural identity, or quickly snowballing disruptions of old ties and affiliations, such as national unity. I sometimes wonder if the original writers of these stories had any clue what an impact their words would have on the world for centuries to come, or if they meant them to be that crucial. Important enough that so many of the world’s ills – especially the wars – stem from differing opinions about what they meant in those stories, or what the readers interpreted as to what should happen to non-believers. And in the latest perversion of our communication process in our modern times, “truth” depends on tribal identification, regardless of whether the stories themselves are factual. Rewriting historical truth with “alternative facts” may be a ludicrous construct, but apparently there are enough people who believe them to make them part of their story. And there is no shortage of unscrupulous people willing to exploit the undereducated, uninformed, or those unable to think critically and determine the differences between the truth and a lie – a factual story from a fictional one – usually to their own ends of personal gain, be it money or power. It eats away at the fabric of our society.
In this way, our personal stories are written in the context of our cultural story. It changes over time, and the story of the neighborhood, region, country or world has negative and positive effect on us, becoming our story. We tell one another our stories over and over, changing them as necessary, to share and compare our experiences as human beings at this place and time.
Have you written down your story? There are lots of services now that will send you questions that you can answer to make a story for those of your descendants that you won’t be able to meet. But why pay someone in this age of computers, printers and – better yet – thumb drives? Don’t worry, your grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t be bored reading it – descriptions of our times and, especially, your place in them will seem exotic and fascinating, just as the stories of our great-grandparents seem to us, if we’re lucky enough to know them. They happened “once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away.” Start a diary, and your progeny will be so pleased you did.
When people ask you “What’s your story?” as you groggily wander the corridors of life, what do you say? What are your peak experiences? What would you consider important enough that it would go into a book to be read by people (most notably your descendants) centuries from now and still have relevance to those who come across it? If your answer is “I don’t have any,” perhaps you’re not living your life to its fullest. When I lost Steve, even though he didn’t write down his story (that I know of), I know that he lived a full and story-worthy life, because those who love him still tell those stories and laugh, or cry, or stand in awe at the man we knew. Live your life as if you’re leaving a story for others to tell after you’ve passed. Fill your pages with joyful and painful experience – make your life a story for the ages. Your story matters to so many. Tell it to those who care to keep it in their hearts.