My great-aunt Edna knew how to tell an entertaining story. She would sit at my Grandpa Raymond’s dinner table, long after we would stuff ourselves with her Southern Indiana style pork and baked beans, and she would regale us with her tales.
One story she would retell was of her trip to New Orleans, where she ate at a fancy fish restaurant. They served her the entire fish’s body on a beautiful platter.
“And wouldn’t you know,” she said, “I couldn’t eat it! It’s great big ‘ole eyeball just stared back at me, and I couldn’t eat a bite!”
Then she would collapse in peals of laughter. As we all would. Out from her pocket would come a dark mauve colored lipstick. She would paint it on her lips, before starting up a fresh anecdote.
These were warm times in my childhood. Listening to Aunt Edna. Her stories about growing up as a farm girl. A sister. Hard times. Marriage. Children. Travel. Food.
These were the stories she shared with me. With all of us. At holidays and parties and barbecues. I loved them. I loved sitting close to her, catching whiffs of her Estee Lauder perfume, drinking in the wonder of the adventures she’d had.
Stories have been how humans have engaged with each other for centuries. The telling and retelling of adventures and legends cements together our common humanity and shared values. Even Jesus used the method of storytelling to relay His deepest points about the love and grace of God the Father. Crowds continually pressed to Him to hear His words. A few writers, after He died and rose again, picked up pen and paper to log the stories for the whole world to read.
Jesus’ purpose in His stories was to convey a truth about the Kingdom of God. It was always for good, for edification, for instruction. His words, and my Aunt Edna’s, are different timbres from what is plastered in our faces through reality TV, celebrity gossip magazines, social media feeds, and the dark corners of our office workplaces.
We can’t help but share the stories we hear. We love knowledge. Thrive on information. Delight in sharing news. It’s how we are sharing that makes all the difference.
There is a reoccurring problem faced every time we repeat a story. We only know one part of it We only see it from our side. It’s our lens, our narrative, our scope.
In the business world, and in the leadership realm, I’m constantly being asked, “What is the story here?” or “What is really happening—can we go deeper?”
In my time as a paralegal, breaking down both sides of a case, hearing what each party is saying, what story they are telling, is vital to understanding what needs to be done next in support of the legal process.
This is where I picture Aunt Edna again. At my Grandpa’s round dining table, leaning in close. Her eyes are on mine, and she says, “Mmmhmm, well yes….and that’s right….”
She listened. She affirmed. She validated.
We must understand:
There is always another piece under the surface…another layer that needs uncovered…missing link to connect the dots.
We say a co-worker is grouchy.
Then we find out that she works two jobs because she’s single mom and she’s trying to save up to buy a house.
We think the guy who works as a customer service clerk is rude.
Then we find out his side gig is as an artist who creates beautiful paintings.
We complain because the restaurant served us the wrong food.
Then we find out the sous chef is fresh out of school, trying to make it in a new field, and is hoping this new career will pay off the student loans.
We see the homeless guy and think he should get a job.
Then we find out that he had a job and a family once, but then hard times came, and he lost it all.
We see only the tip of the iceberg of life that lurks underneath our everyday movements, as we sail past each other. We are so eager with our responses to others that we miss the details. We hasten to fill the pauses in conversation when waiting in silence would give the other person space to share.
I want to be a good storyteller.
I think that means I need to listen more.
Some stories are not mine to share, but maybe it is my responsibility to point out to others who are telling their stories. I am white, American, middle-class, have both a mom and a dad, am a Christian, work an office job, and do freelance work on the side. I’m a mom, a wife, a volunteer. I’ve been overweight, struggled with depression, had crappy cars that broke down on me multiple times. Those are pieces of my story.
I can’t speak to the stories of the struggles of the varied ethnic communities across my nation and the world. Nor, to the marginalized of society. Nor, to the under-privileged. I haven’t experienced horrors of war or fled as a refugee; I haven’t been orphaned nor have I adopted children. I haven’t had to pan-handle for cash, worry about learning how to read, or wondered if I didn’t get a job because of my skin color.
Our viewpoint on other people’s stories is limited by our own experiences. Our compartmentalization of people and events inhibits our ability to take in fresh perspectives and learn from different viewpoints. We must look beyond ourselves. We speak. We make room for speakers. To learn, not to tell. To empathize, not judge. I don’t want my words to overshadow what they need to say.
I refuse to convey a message that hasn’t been entrusted to me.
Repeatedly Scripture, we see Jesus engaging with person after person, opening up the floor to the unheard souls of society. A lonely woman at a well. A crippled man by a crowded pool. A child who had loaves and fishes.
People had things to say.
Jesus was all ears.
Everyone had a place at His dinner table.
After all, the stories we know intimately are our own stories. The story of my life, who I am, where I’m going, what God has done in my life—that’s the one I can repeat without fear. I have often been the dork of the tale, not the princess. I have screwed up, failed, and fallen to my face, skinning my chin, mouth, and forehead, in round after round of blazing glory. I have laughed and cried, been red-faced and sad-faced, given love, and received joy.
It’s the stuff of epics.
I hope that every piece that is added onto my story in the coming year serves a purpose. I hope that any laugh I bring, any tear I evoke, any smile I win, will remind everyone of something deeper. That we are all interconnected. That we are human. That we need each other. Because, in our brokenness, we can use some goodness. In our weakness, we need support. In the mundane, we need the amazing.
I can see Aunt Edna, leaning down from Heaven’s gate,
nodding her head and smiling. Her lipstick is perfect.
“Mh-hmmm, girl, that’s right,” she says. “Ain’t that somethin’?”
You tell me your story. I’ll tell you mine.
The dining room table is open.
Come on over, friends.
P.S. Check out the hair….it’s just all a part of the story.