We all know how the story starts: “Once upon a time…” As we grew up, we have heard these stories that surrounded our bedtime routine, classrooms, the campfire, and so on. Stories that lead our imagination to wherever our mental limits can take us. We all have stories that we connect to. They can range from the stories that inspired our imaginations, told us more about ourselves and the world around us, or the lighthearted stories that took us away from our daily lives and made us feel human – even if for just a moment. We can all think of a story that still has an effect on us today.
As we live our lives, passing stories from one generation to the next, the story which is often untold and lost in the shadows is our own. Our lives in which we live – the lives behind the obituary and the one sentence byline.
As a speaker and storyteller, I am lucky to travel the globe and help craft and share stories from individuals across the spectrum. The newly immigrated father navigating a new home for the first time, the young daughter who is managing school work while also supporting her mother back home dying from cancer, or even the happy couple reliving their first meeting several years back after simply sharing a piece of fruit. I have heard thousands of stories and they are as unique and as similar as every place I go.
These stories, our stories, which we hold ourselves back from sharing, can actually be the most powerful story in our arsenal to share with the world. Once shared they provide individuals with the opportunity to step into another’s life for just a moment, to better understand a perspective outside of their own. But we hesitate to share for fear of judgement, ridicule and, most importantly, because we hesitate to be vulnerable.
But what is a story and what is the power of sharing our own stories? Well, a story is an account of a moment given at a particular time. So, to share our stories is to provide a vivid and detailed account of a time where the listener can step into our shoes and experience our world as if they were actually there. Experience a moment in our lives with all five senses. But you may wonder, how is this relevant?
Well, I would say our current political climate has caused a decisive divide in our country. We have driven our stakes into the ground and stand by our outward labels. It may be our political affiliation, race, gender, profession, religious beliefs or even our status. The labels are vast and in the gray area in-between is widening. We have boxed ourselves into to our own prison of ideology and outward judgment, so that we literally see the world through two different lenses, standing firm to our positions and unwilling to listen to those on the other side of the line.
The problem is that our outward labels are multi-connected. For example, the police officer who goes home to their spouse and kid after a long day of work, as well as the NFL athlete who follows the same routine. Both likely share similar stories of parenthood and life, but because we classify their beings from a single classification – police officer, NFL athlete – we assume that they are worlds apart. The problem is that we don’t hear those stories because we don’t know their story. We put them into a single bucket, and devalue and ignore the many layers that thread together in commonality so that their stories – in our view – fit with our narratives. The police officer is not just a police officer, just as the NFL athlete is not just a NFL athlete. Just as the Republican is not just a Republican and a Democrat not just a Democrat. Yes, ideological perspectives may fall on political lines, but what are the individual stories that cause people to think and react one way versus another. What is the story behind the story; the person behind the person, and the experience behind the experience?
Stories allow us to step into someone else’s life without judgement, and as a result foster empathy and a better understanding through the process of sharing and listening. Now, in a world where people want to be heard, maybe the first approach is to find ways of actively listening. You may grind your teeth and dig your heels, but the ability to listen openly and ask questions which dive deeper into the story is a skill, one everyone could and should learn.
Hopefully, by actively listening and sharing our stories, we as a society will gain a better appreciation for the people that make up the world around us and begin to understand the simple fact that we may actually have more that connects us rather than separates us. It may sound like a fairy-tale pipe dream, as it may as well be, but I can assure you through my travels across the globe, this process has broken down more walls and led to more “happily ever after’s” than you would think.