Storytelling is quite the buzz word these days, at least among Christian circles. So much so that I feel like saying “I told stories before it was gospel.” Does that make me some kind of Christian hipster? I hope so. The importance of learning a person’s story imprinted on me at a young age. In retrospect, I’m not sure why. My church didn’t emphasize the need, no one really talked about it. Maybe it was because I inherently understood the need to tell my own story, and more so, my need to be heard. So in reality, I have been telling and listening to people’s stories since before Donald Miller started exploiting the practice. (And I know the Native Americans were telling stories or whatever long before I ever was, so don’t worry, I don’t think I am too “unique” or “original.”)
But an irritation with the buzz began a hardening in me to the overall concept. After all, I already told my story to enough
people, and I moved on, so why was everyone else still blubbering on about “telling stories”?
“What are you reading?”
“Oh, just some creative nonfiction essays.”
“You know I never really considered Linda’s a place to read.”
“Ya, it’s not…”
Alone at my patio table at Linda’s Brew Pub in Seattle, smashed between two large parties, I was an oddity amongst the din of the crowd. A beer and the knowledge I didn’t live in this city made it so I mostly didn’t care. But have you ever been alone in a crowded room? And I am not being depressingly metaphorical here — really, have you ever just sat and watched large groups of people interact with each other? At first, the lonely middle schooler in me wanted to know what conversations I was missing out on. But when I overheard the birthday party on my right, I didn’t care about the topic. I looked to my left and caught some snippets, but again, wasn’t very interested. And then I scanned the rest of the patio; groups of girls in dresses, couples on dates, the haggard lady standing at her corner table with a cigarette talking with two men — and I thought maybe I didn’t care what any of them were talking about. Maybe I wasn’t being “left out” of anything. Maybe my own story, sitting alone reading in a crowded brew pub in Seattle, was good enough just as it was.
The Moth Radio Hour is a segment on NPR where people tell stories onstage, live and unscripted. These stories keep me company many a bored day at work. While packing for my Seattle trip I listened to a girl tell of a horrific rape encounter. In the aftermath, in her need to remain in control despite something completely outside of her control having happened to her, she just kept moving. Achieving, succeeding, working long hours, because the longer she worked the less she had to think about what happened. And one day, when she couldn’t do it any longer, a series of events led her to a therapist’s office where she finally began telling her story. And kept telling it and retelling it, over and over, session upon session, like verbal vomit, the same story, again and again. And one day she asked her therapist why she felt the need to tell the story like that, as if internally compelled. And her therapist said, “Because that is how we heal.”
Long distance relationships are hard, be it friendship, significant other-ship, or your parents…ship. I have a friend living in Africa at the moment and occasionally he’ll call or we’ll Gchat. Every time I enter the conversation excited to talk him, but occasionally leave feeling we talked about nothing and I wasted my time. Irritated with myself for feeling this way about someone I care about, but wanting to understand my feelings, I wondered why some conversations with long distance friends go better than others. A few names of people whom conversations always go well with, as well as a few with which conversations are perpetually dull, came to mind. And I realized what it comes down to is story telling. When you are not living life together, in order for phone calls or Skype dates to not become laundry lists of what you did the past week, you must tell stories. The conversations which go better with my friend are the ones in which we are able to share funny incidents, give details, offer analysis of situations. Another realization in this same vain is that people who are writers are often better verbal story tellers as well. I am not sure if this means I can only be long distance friends with writers, but I do know that in order for a person to feel valued and important, they need to feel like they are living life with you. The minute someone begins to feel they are not a part of your story is when the relationship begins to disintegrate.
So now, here I sit in a coffee shop having some post modern revelation about the importance of story. All around me are girls analyzing “what his text message meant last night,” mothers swapping stories about the “most ethical way to breastfeed your baby,” trios of guys bantering politics and “coffee filtration methodology.” I am reminded of my time at Linda’s. And I think, “Ya, I probably don’t care about any of these stories. But THEY care about each other’s stories. And that’s what matters.” All around me I am watching people in relationship. And in a society becoming perpetually more and more disconnected and isolated, be it because of technology or riches enabling a large house on a hill, this is important. Stories knit societies together. We all have them, they are all good enough, and they all need to be told and heard.
So go ahead, tell your story and exploit away, and ignore crotchety elitists like myself.