Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Can't Understand

Every one of us is a storyteller.

Each day we set out to tell our tales. And we like to believe that in at least our own stories, we are the heroes. I believe that this is a very achievable goal. Issues crop up when we start to think of our stories in relation to all the other stories unfolding around us.

The truth is, no matter how awesome we are in our own stories, we are very unlikely to be the hero of someone else's. That doesn't mean that we're the villains. It's just that at best we're supporting characters, while most likely we're really extras. Background to that person's story.

But we want to be heroes.

So, when we hear about the obstacles cropping up in other people's stories, we rush to defend ourselves.

We did not cause that obstacle. Because we are heroes. And we understand everyone's obstacles, whether or not they're ours. Because we are heroes. And it is important that other people know that the obstacle in question was not created by us. Because...well, you know. The whole hero thing.

Except that isn't really important. And we have no real way of understanding the obstacles of someone else's story.

But we act like we do, because heaven forbid we look ignorant.

When I was a kid, my little sister would ask me all sorts of questions. More than half the time, I wouldn't know the answer, but there was no way I was telling her that. So, instead, I made crap up. Because I was her big sister and it was my job to have answers for her.

I went through two years of pre-school, K-12, four years of undergrad and a two year Masters program and never managed to shake the fear of a teacher asking me a question to which I didn't know the answer. Most of the time, I didn't even care whether or not I'd retained the knowledge I was supposed to. I just didn't want everyone else knowing if I hadn't.

Because no one wants to look ignorant.

But even for the smartest, most well-educated people, it's impossible not to suffer some degree of ignorance when it comes to other people's stories.

I identify as a lot of things. Here are a few:

Female. White. Heterosexual. Catholic. Daughter. Little sister. Big sister. Aunt. Godchild. Godmother. Friend. Niece. Cousin. Rape Survivor. Writer. Reader. Storyteller. Development and Communications Director. Former Federal Employee. New Yorker. American University Alumni. Star Wars Fan. Obsessive Quoter of Movies. Nerd. Scrapbooker. Greeting Card Giver. Owner of Embarrassing Number of Adult Onesie Pajamas. Christmas Nut. Superhero Wannabe. Believer That Life is a Musical If You Make It a Musical. Baker. Pie Lover. Turtle Mom. Nutella Consumer.

Now, maybe one of you is reading this and thinking, "Yes! I am every one of those things." To you, I say, "Hello, soul sister." More likely, you're looking at this and thinking, "Yeah, I can relate to some of that."

That's really the best we can hope for. That we'll find things in other people to relate to. Because there is not a person in this world who can fully understand my story, as they haven't lived it. And there is not a person in this world whose story I can fully understand, no matter how close I might be to them.  Because I haven't lived it.

There's danger in claiming that we understand things we haven't experienced. It puts us in a position to dismiss or cut off a conversation that wasn't really ours to control.

When someone complains about the obstacles in their life and we use it as an opportunity to jump in and explain how we are not part of the problem - because we're heroes and we understand - we're hijacking someone else's story to make it our own. Which might not necessarily make us villains, but certainly doesn't make us the solution of obstacles.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is take a break from heroics. To settle in momentarily to being someone else's extra. To say, "I can't understand your story, not because I don't want to, but because it will never be my experience. I don't know whether or not I'll sympathize with it. I don't know whether or not we'll agree with each other when it's over. But I'd like to listen to it anyway." And then to do just that. To let that story take center stage, even when you want to distance yourself from the obstacles. Even when you want to say, "That might be true, but not about me." To play a supporting role.

Because, every one of us is a storyteller. And every one of us deserves at least one commercial free telling of their story.

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