There is a reason that we humans are fascinated with stories. There is a deep connection that we have with the stories of others. From history to social studies to literature, all learning is founded in story. Even in mathematics we learn that a powerful way of getting an answer with numbers is to tell a story of who bought what apples and where. We have told stories, recorded stories, defined the method for stories, and worshiped stories. What is it about a story that carries so much weight?
I don’t think that I will be able to tackle this subject exhaustively, but I do think it is a great opportunity for some discussion. I have noticed that we cannot fully participate in the life of another person unless we know at least a small bit of their story. The more of their story that we know, the more of their life we get a chance to share, and that is the thread that connects us all together.
We are social creatures, and we cannot experience our social nature wholly until we engage in the stories of one another and of our society. In literature, we see the effects of the personal story manifest in many different ways. Some of the most powerful stories center around the “untold” stories of characters that we know (or at least that we think we know).
The story of Wicked is the story of the insurrectionist Elphaba and her fight to rid Oz of the tyrannical Wizard. I knew the story of The Wizard of Oz and recognized it as a cultural staple, but I still had to sit down when I first heard the chorus to the new musical, “Goodness knows that no one mourns the wicked, and goodness knows that the wicked die alone.” Why had I never felt anything but joy for the death of the witch? Because she was written into the story as the antagonist, and that character is expendable. How many of the stories that we tell are based on that model and villify those who are not the storyteller? Even around the water cooler at the office, our stories lack a critical element: the stories of the other characters.
(There is a bit of a spoiler here, so if you haven’t read the Harry Potter series in full, shame on you. Take a break from this article, bookmark it, then go read the books. Really, haven’t read Harry Potter, sheez…) In the Harry Potter stories, Snape is the most dynamic character. His is the story that resonates in reality, the one that embodies pain and hurt and resentment. He is a hero, giving up himself for others. Until you know his story, until you have a chance to gaze into the pensieve of his life and see him for the broken person that he is, you cannot participate in his life. Dumbledore knew his story, and he was able to enter into it and participate in it. The magic of Dumbledore was no match for his vast knowledge of the stories of others. Even in his story, we find that he was not the person we thought that he was.
So, there is a challenge here. All of us struggle with other people all the time, and we are frustrated constantly by the relationships that we have with the people around us. But how many of those frustrations are based in incidents and moments rather than stories? If we focus on learning the stories of others and engaging the people around us in our own story, no matter how ugly or unpolished that story might be, we can begin to untie the knots of our bound and gagged relationships and we can start the process of growing in relationship to others.
Set your story free. Find a place to tell your story and find an opportunity to listen to one. I use coffee, because I am addicted to it, and I invite folks to coffee shops and to church where we can sit and talk. Then I break out a question about them, usually one of those cheesy questions you get at self help retreats, like, “What was one incident that happened to you as a child that you think shapes who you are today?” Strangely enough, people don’t roll their eyes and laugh at me. They begin to reflect, and they jump at the chance to tell their story.