I have the increasing suspicion that we mistrust stories. The word itself has taken on a meaning inherent opposed to truth—“that’s just a story.” Something someone made up. It’s not real. It’s not worth taking seriously.
But all this reveals is that we don’t understand how stories work or how important they are to our daily life. You see, all humans tell stories. We tell them about our desires, our fears, our hopes. We tell them about ourselves. There’s nothing problematic in this fact in itself. A feature, not a bug, you could say. A story is not necessarily truth, but it is a way to get at the truth. And, truthfully, how many ways to do that do we have? When we run into trouble, however, is when we forget we’re telling stories. When we forget to acknowledge that we’re constructing. When we forget we are not just the subject of the story but the teller of it. When we start to use stories to hide and not to reveal.
I have a story. I used to be ashamed of telling it, but the more I realize that because I now am in a different chapter of it and most people assume I have a different background, the more I realize that I have to tell it. You see, I am probably not who you think I am. I didn’t spring into the life I live now fully formed. I have to talk about the journey. I have to talk about being poor. I have to talk about the time I was in Wal-Mart trying to stretch my five dollars out as far as it would go, or all the times I waited for the supervisor to come to the grocery checkout and sign off on my food checks and the visible irritation and judgment of everyone around me, or pleading with the landlord of my $300 a month studio because I was late on rent that month because god help me I just didn’t have it, and I did have an infant to take care of. I have to talk about having an abortion, because I only had enough resources to take care of that one, and even that barely. I have to talk about how fortunate I was to be able to make that choice. I have to talk about working like hell as a single mother through years of stress and more stress just to get out. I have to talk about being impossibly lucky, about having enough privilege that I could become one of the upwardly mobile few that did get out. I have to talk about all of this, because this is my story, and telling stories is where empathy grows.
Because of my story, I have empathy for those who have gone through tough times I couldn’t even imagine, because at the very least I know what it’s like to not be empathized with. I have some idea of what it’s like to be judged, to be looked at and have your potential estimated and dismissed on sight, based on the surface level of what others see. My individual story has made me understand the larger world. My individual story has taught me how to see other individuals and their struggles, and it has taught me I deserve none of what I have now if I don’t use it build the justice I see lacking.
If you only know my successes, you don’t know my story. Everything I did or made in recent years came after the rest. How many other people out there are struggling and yet capable of just as much, and very likely even more? If you are looking at people and seeing anything other than their potential, you’re missing the only story that matters. If you are not seeing the full scope of the picture and how you fit into it, you yourself are incomplete.
I was worth believing in, and so is everyone else. Full stop. That is a complete story. And it is the truth.
And so I tell that story. I remind myself of it every day. I take nothing for granted. I think incessantly about the world my daughter is growing up in, and what stories she has available to her. Right now, those stories are dark, frightening and deeply saddening. For a country founded on the radical notion that individuals have potential which should be fulfilled no matter what their background is, we are doing a remarkably poor job of seeing that notion through to its ultimate reality. I’m worried about people who could have their safety net diminished or outright removed. I’m worried about women who need to make choices. I’m worried about everyone who lives in the margins and is running out of recourse and resources. I haven’t forgot where I came from, but, collectively, we have. We have forgot the stuff which we’re made of. We’ve forgot all the stories we’ve needed, so badly, to remember, and we’ve stopped listening to new ones.
The worst possible result of this, the one we have to guard against, is that we could cease to tell new stories altogether.
I fully intend to teach my daughter to believe in stories, but I will be careful to also teach her the key of telling stories—that you are the storyteller. In order to learn how to tell stories, you first listen to the stories of others. You must go to new places and take in new information. You watch, learn, grow and listen, listen, listen. You create spaces for new voices. You speak up when someone else tries to limit or restrict those spaces. You recognize that your enemy is the ignorance that the lack of empathy feeds. The stories you tell link you to your past experiences, ground you in the present and determine what you will make of the future. They give you power, a particular power that you can’t lose unless you forget that you have it or unless you neglect the responsibility of having it.
You are the storyteller. And it’s up to you to tell a new story worth believing in.