I received a call from a local news reporter a week before September 11th. She’d heard I’d lived in New York at the time and wanted to interview me for a story.
“No,” I said.
“I can understand it may be difficult, but it would help so many people,” she offered.
“How?” I asked.
And she was silent.
“It’s my story and the story of those who were with me. It’s not for public consumption anymore,” I told her. She said she understood. Maybe she did. Maybe she, like so many in our culture, including me, often lose sight of the value of stories and the honor with which they are told and heard.
I told my 9/11 story once in a public forum. While I may have personalized the event or offered a human face, all reasons I frequently hear for the public consumption of stories, I felt like my story was a commodity of the moment, consumed by others at my own expense. The story had not lived in my bones long enough to be told to an audience in that manner.
But, I was young and did not listen to an older, wiser mentor who cautioned me. When I talked to him several years later and expressed my regret at my decision, he asked me what I had learned. A value of regret is the transformation of the event to new insight. That moment invited me to reframe the value of stories - mine, ours, and others.
Jesus often tells those he encounters, especially those who have significant moments of healing with him, to keep silent. For years I thought he was being super humble. Now I wonder if he simply realized that our stories, at least the powerful, life-changing ones, need time to sink into our selves and souls before we share them with the public. We need time for God to give them meaning and form before we scatter them into the world. Our encounters with the Holy are not to be randomly shared, but held within as pearls of great price until the right times.
When we don’t honor and value stories, they become cheap, something to toss into the wind haphazardly. We may share stories not ours (also known as gossip) or share stories in places where our stories are not honored. I am not a fan of forced small-group sharing, simply because it presumes a safe place to share stories, which is not often the truth, and it forces people to share stories in often unnatural settings.
How many clergy have been at conferences where we’re discussing some significant issue and then, as part of the day, we’re forced into small groups to share a time when we doubted God, wanted to leave our jobs, or considered committing a felony? This is not sharing stories. This is filling space with words and narratives that may or may not be helpful. Or true, for that matter.
We may also co-opt the stories of others. Instead of honoring their story, we claim it as our own, stealing another’s story to add value to ourselves or writing ourselves a role in their story that has not been welcomed. But it’s not value, because it’s not ours. In doing so, we devalue our own stories and experiences.
As people of faith, we are people of stories. In the best way, stories give us insight, offer connection between people and communities, allow understanding of another point of view, and give us meaning to our own stories. We share these stories in worship, over coffee and meals, while walking, in our prayers, in 12 Step Meetings, and with friends. Stories are always true, even when they aren’t factual.
We share our stories to tell others who we are, how we have rejoiced, and how we have been wounded - not to manipulate or gain some response - but simply to tell and offer. The hearer of stories, like our ancestors gathered around ancient fires, listens so the words mix and swirl with our own. Maybe we are granted some new understanding. Maybe we are changed. Maybe we are entertained. Maybe we are simply present.
Some of the most holy moments in my life are when I’ve been chosen by a person to be the first one to hear their big story, when they aren’t sure of the words and need time between the emotional weight and the tears to tell their story. The holiness of the moment is palpable, and I always give thanks.
Thanks for their story, for their courage, and for their truth. And thanks for those in my life who have listened to my big stories for the first time and welcomed each word and tear as it came forth from my soul.
What are your stories? Where have you told them? Who has listened, truly listened? Who has not listened?
Do you value your stories as holy stories?
Our stories, from the insignificant moments of everyday life to the ones that change us forever, are valuable. They are not commodities to be consumed. They are precious. They are ours. They are God’s.