Over the next few weeks, I will share insights gained or reinforced to me during a recent mission trip to Africa. This is not rocket science. It is just this: while doing something radically different, things that can go unnoticed become writ large. They may not be new or hidden behind some code, but important things make a clearer sound when we are away from all our urgent noise.
The first one is this: everyone has a story and should learn how to tell it. During our weeks away, the members of our team each told their story. In preparation, I asked them to list their top-40 most influential people, events, and circumstances. They were then to group these as phases and transitions, choosing a symbol for 6-8 of them. These would form the outline for their story. Over the course of our weeks together, they told their stories, one per night. Here are a few insights that I gained as a result….
Every story is strangely familiar.
When someone tells his story with authenticity and courage, it begins to resonate within the minds and hearts of listeners. A sense of common experience begins to emerge. Perhaps the particulars are different, but somehow the story feels familiar. Listeners empathize as the storyteller recounts a difficult relationship or a response to a challenge. The range of emotion—the joy, pain, and temptations—ties to experiences we all face. In that sense then, telling one’s story brings people together, powerfully building intimacy and trust.
Every story is set on a battlefield
Someone said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” If you listen to enough people tell their story, you see the evidence of that fact. Life is so daily. Even in seasons of rest, we can hear the warning drums of what looms in the distance. But mainly, we fight ourselves—our fears, general distrust, and even our paranoia. We discount our own strength and ability to carry the day. Other times, we fight our past, wrestling with bad decisions and regret.
We also battle our world—whether the challenges of injustice or obstacles lying in the path of our greater goals. In hearing the stories of others, we can begin to see that we are not alone on the battlefield. Knowing others around us also feel the strain can break us free from the dungeon of self, to encourage more. “Be kind, for everyone you meet….”
Every story is most dramatic in moments of moral victory.
When people tell their stories with any degree of authenticity, moral choices emerge. They stand as thresholds onto uncertain future paths. Should I choose “door number one” or “door number two?” We listen on our seat’s edge as the moment of decision is recounted, both within that very scene and also upon reflection. We see angels and devils on shoulders, whispering or even shouting. Sometimes perhaps only the audience and not the storyteller can see them. We feel the drama of the choice—whether to compromise principle for personal gain, to defend ones reputation, or to rely upon one’s character and thereby strengthen it. The truth and consequences seem so plain in the telling and yet in the process of living it, we empathize with the confusion of the moment. The listener pulls for the storyteller, hoping for the best, even at great personal risk, to respond well in the face of challenge. We pull for greatness within these ordinary moments of trial.
Telling your story is difficult.
The main difficulty is the choice of how open and honest to be. Usually, we must choose either to maintain control or to risk, and thereby influence. Control vs. influence. You cannot have both. Either you risk transparency and allow your authentic self to speak with great influence, or you place a veneer over the top of your telling in order to maintain control, and thereby squelch influence. The risk is that others might use the knowledge of your story against you—judging, giving unsolicited advice, or making sport of you. These are just a few potential consequences to personal exposure, but there is no influence without the risk.
Have you ever told your story? What insights have you gained from the stories of others?