Our storied lives are spoken and unspoken, communal and individual, understood and mysterious, but always connected and always ongoing. Reading this first sentence back to myself, it sounds like I’m starting the story from the middle. I wanted to rewrite it but I was struck deeply with the reality:
When are we not starting in the middle?
No matter when we begin, as human we always begin in the middle of something and someone else. Life has already started and flourished and invaded the space all around us. We enter into the story — into many stories, truth be told — at certain points, but we don’t enter from the beginning. Even Jesus entered in the cacophony of the world’s stories during their telling, and not before.
The reality of our stories — their telling, their silence, their impacts, their dramas, their comedies, their interconnectedness — has been highlighted repeatedly for me in specific and acute ways over the past week or two. I’m deeply sensitive to story, so when narratives and our perceptions of them come more frequently to me and run more deeply than usual, I sit up and take notice.
A commonality amongst the realities of these past weeks has been comparison: you don’t have a story because your experience simply doesn’t reflect the depth of my reality.
Brene Brown would say that this habit of reducing stories of The Other is common (or in her terms, we express sympathy rather than empathy): “Well at least you…“. It’s a power tactic that let’s me reduce your story to less than mine because you didn’t experience what I’ve survived. In fact, when I’m not careful, I become the sole arbiter of what’s truly meaningful or worthy of story in my world that events or climaxes or denouements that occur in your life are all held up against this line. And if you don’t meet or surpass my experience, you simply haven’t really experienced reality.
One of my favourite narratologists, Arthur Frank, says this: “Reflection on memory makes the self an object of wonder—an astonishment previously reserved for the contemplation of the world.” – Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics
When we look inward, we find world upon world of meaning and story, of faith and finding, of life and loss and love.
When we dig into our stories, we discover multiple wonders often suppressed as selfish or vain. True, we can reflect a little too much on ourselves to the neglect of our neighbours, but the reverse is also true: we have shoved self-awareness aside so vehemently in favour of calling it selflessness that we have missed out on the power of narrating and giving voice to our stories.
Remember how I mentioned that we never step into story from the beginning?
As we dare to step into narrating our stories, we also discover how profound and powerful traumatic events have shaped our lives. The peculiar thing about trauma is that its currents flow through everyone just a little bit differently.
If someone shares with me how they walked through a dark time because their church decided to use real bread instead of wafers, I immediately and unconsciously filter that story through my narrative lens: I have been abused, mistreated, and wounded by the church in ways that I believe outshine the eternal wafer v. bread debate. This narrative has no reason to impact a person in ways that it has.
In fact, unless anyone has experienced what I have experienced, their narrative is…just whining. Complaining.
What I’ve failed to do is to remove my lens. My storied life is not set aside, but in order to receive the stories of others, I need to set aside my lens. I have been invited into the middle of a story, not a beginning or an intention. So when I judge that someone’s experience is less than mine based on the one event they have shared with me, I have neatly elevated my own story to a place where my experiences are the worst, the most traumatic, the most astonishing, the most profound, or the most painful.
And more often than not, my responses are based in the shame of fear-filled messages I internalized my entire life:
You just have to be the centre of attention.
Don’t be so emotional.
Get it together.
When someone else presents their story in ways I perceive or judge to be overly emotional or draining, my “attention-seeking” radar instantly goes up and that person becomes worthy of shaming just as I was. After all, I learned to shut up and be quiet; I learned how to frame my story; I learned self-control; and I learned how to stuff feelings down. And I can, this other person can…and should.
I need to return to a place of humility.
It’s true that pancreatitis hurts far more than paper cuts and demands deeper story and healing, but even in the deepest suffering, paper cuts can cause dramatic injury to those sensitive fingertips of ours, especially when we pour lemon juice or salt on the little wounds.
We enter into the middle of the story.
We enter into the spaces people invite us into, not their entire narratives. We are guests to but a glimpse of the stories buried within.
We enter into these spaces at the urging of the narrators, and not because of our own stories.
We enter into life when we are humble and courageous enough to set aside our narrative lenses, appreciating and valuing our own stories, but curious and empathic enough to see how events — large and small — course through the lives of other people.
I’m not arguing for a complete abandonment of discernment. Maturing in how we share our storied selves is a part of growing into who we are as human beings. But growth isn’t linear, nor does it copycat itself from one life to the next. It bends and twists and harnesses us in surprising ways that will forever teach us about ourselves.
Learning how to receive the childhood story of an inmate in a federal penitentiary, as well as a wealthy heir to a great fortune is a journey well worth walking.
Learning when to keep our voices still is a journey well worth taking.
Learning to see, hear, touch, and understand systemic narratives is a journey well worth taking, not to mention necessary.
Learning to share the spaces that have been shamed into silence because they are big enough or real enough is a journey well worth taking.
Learning to continue to the stories we’re in is definitely a journey well worth taking.
We’re nowhere close to the end yet.