I'm enjoying being back in the classroom for the first time in a couple of years with 13 new students at Oxford College in a course called, “Understanding Community.” The students are from across the United States and world, and they bring varied experiences of community with them to our conversation.
Last week, I had three staff members from various student support offices introduce themselves and talk about their work. As their final question prompt, I asked them to tell us about their journey up to this point in life. In other words, how did you get here doing what you’re doing.
An important part of living in a community – whether that’s a family, religious community, civic group, school class, or the broader community like Covington – is the opportunity to tell and listen to stories. We rarely ask people questions that open their stories to us, which means we hardly ever get to tell our story too.
For some of us that’s probably OK. One of my colleagues kept repeating in class how hard it was for her to talk about her journey. She’s so used to helping other people with solutions to their challenges that crop up in the middle of their own stories that she rarely thinks about her story. After the class, the four of us staff members talked about how vulnerable one must be willing to be to share their story.
Listening is, of course, another key component when it comes to storytelling. When someone accepts their vulnerability and tells us their story or a portion of it, it is then on us to be keen listeners.
I’m afraid I found myself embarrassed at the end of the class meeting. One of my colleagues and I have worked together for almost 12 years, and I may have learned more about her in this one hour than in all those previous years. We’ve spent time lots of time together before now, but I realized I had never asked her to talk about her journey or story before. Why not?
What keeps us from inviting people to sit down and share more about themselves? It seems like we usually need a good reason to do this. Like inviting them to be a guest speaker for a class. Or our therapist or pastor offering us counsel and it’s only in that moment we really share ourselves and our lives.
We can point the finger in a lot of places. Too much technology. Lives that have become too varied and harried amid all the demands. The ease and accessibility of transport and travel.
All the above are valid reasons and have a hand in our inability to invite others into swapping stories with us. I would add to that list that sharing stories is hard. It isn’t easy to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to break open the depths of our life in front of another.
But it is necessary. It is necessary if we’re going to survive and thrive. If we are going to figure out climate change, racial reconciliation, and how to take on challenges like pandemics, it will only happen together. For it to happen together, we must put away our phones and understand that we do have time for each other. For it to happen together, we must practice the art of stopping so that we slow down long enough to see our neighbors. For it to happen together, we may need to start small but still crack the outer shells of our existence. Only then will we find out what it means to work together.
With 11 months left in 2022, we have plenty of time to share our stories. Start with someone in your family, then a church friend or co-worker, and then broaden it to someone outside of your circle. Practice may not make perfect, but it will help us make a life together.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford, Georgia, with his spouse and nine-year-old.