May 2021: What's Your Story?
“What’s your story?” It’s a casual question, but how it is asked, and how you answer, conveys volumes. We can ask this question lightly seeking a surface level response to some question—such as why someone arrives at a meeting or support service. Or, in a reassuring way we can ask the question with a careful curiosity, conveying an invitation to go deep and reflect. There is also the uninterested version laden with sarcasm. But no matter—all these ways to ask are no match for the answer.
It turns out we have a dearth of healthy examples in our culture for how to tell our authentic stories. We receive a deluge of stories throughout our lives, from story books to great works of fiction, movies, television, famous (and infamous) peoples’ social media feeds. But virtually all of these stories present one version or another of the single-minded hero, the protagonist who learns from experiences of life, the person who surpasses the masses or succumbs to the odds. Too often we get the formula: once there was…then this happened to the protagonist…then they learned/overcame/failed. It is as though no one else and nothing else moves and grows to make the hero possible. Notably absent from many stories are women, especially my elder generations who were taught that their stories were synonymous with and invisible to a man’s, a family’s, and a community’s stories.
Neither of these versions of “story” is completely untrue. We are wonderous individuals capable of incredible feats of free will. And, we are simultaneously only able to do and be and imagine ourselves within myriad other stories and histories. The person who tells the story of their growth ought also to tell how the other characters, the community, the world grew up with them and made their transformation what it was. Conceiving of ourselves as individuals who move through and achieve amidst an unchanging context is simplistic delusion.
The implications of such underdeveloped stories are far-reaching. Unable to tell our own personal stories healthfully embedded within growing communities and circumstances around us, leads to an overly individualistic worldview. It impedes our ability to conceive of ourselves as part of a world community and an interdependent web of existence. It curtails our capacity for empathy and encourages a commodification of experience and other people. It robs us of the conceptual language needed to be able build our way out of the climate crisis and systemic racism and sexism.
If you are still reading, your spirit is probably settling lower right now. Let’s follow it down to rest on the earth. Imagine you are sitting next to me on the rough ground beneath a tree. How about we stay here for a bit…there is shade, the weather is nice. Tell me, what is your story? Let’s skip the ‘once there was…then this happened to you…then you learned.’ Instead, I would love to bear witness to the places in life where you glided, and the places you sank. Gliding, who inspired you, who floated with you and goaded you on? Who was growing and changing and how did that inspire and challenge you? Who did you teach and what did they learn? Who and what were your teachers in life? Where did your community learn to grow that gave you joy, and where did it get stuck?
Our stories cannot live alone because they are tangled up in all the other stories we encounter; they are knotted in our wider communities. Tracing the lines and loosening the knots, balancing attention to all the threads that touch our lives, we can tell and retell how we are woven together and finally come to know the fabric of our shared destiny.
With this approach in mind, we are invited to reflect on our stories of the past two years. How have we tugged and stretched one another? What have we learned and taught one another? What has our growth made possible for each within, and those beyond, the congregation? Each to another, how have we changed our understanding of ourselves and our possibilities in this world?
Tell me, what is our story?