I’ve been out in Denver for work. Before that I was in New Orleans. I work in fundraising, and my job mostly consists of meeting people and hearing their stories.
I don’t think it was ever intentional, but these last several years collecting and cherishing the most heartfelt human stories from the people I’ve met has been eye-opening in a way maybe I didn’t expect.
Sometimes, I feel like some kind of alchemist of words, a purveyor of truths that make this or that person tick or tock. It’s almost like learning to listen so closely to what people are willing to tell you that when it pours from their hearts, you can catch their story in a net or empty it into a small bottle to be stored for another day when the story is needed:
There was the frail man, a Vietnam vet, who plays polka with his wife for a group of alzheimers patients on Wednesdays down at the community center.
Then there was the brigadier general who had served a year in Lebanon with the UN just as Hezbollah was beginning to form and whose life was threatened by eight-year old boys holding grenade launchers in a thick grove of oranges.
There was, of course, the retired Aramco engineer who’d made a killing off Saudi oil and who found Jesus when a Monsignor snuck onto his compound and secretly celebrated Mass. Despite his long and rooted faith, his deep southern drawl from his birthplace in the bayou was animated by the fact that every other word was a “shit” this or a “fuck” that.
We met at the IHOP and I was sick for four days after.
A Palestinian immigrant started building warehouses, the business boomed, and meanwhile, his brother worked as a Shakespeare scholar who was one of the first to suppose William had a significant hand in the crafting of the King James Bible.
I think he may have been right.
A lawyer and Trump supporter wined and dined his multiple wives on last minute cruises to some Caribbean island or another over the years. He spoke rather candidly about his dislike of brown people, and I wondered whether certain forms of altruism and charitable giving to the “other” inadvertently reinforce our disdain for them.
Maybe for some giving isn’t so much about sharing our compassion as it can be a more narcissistic experience of patting ourselves on the back for addressing a suffering we couldn’t confront with integrity any other way. We too often want to buy off “problems” rather than be with them; although, I suspect the benefits outweigh the detriments like Robin Hood stealing from the rich. Whatever it takes to ease suffering?
There was the eighty year-old cyclist, a sweet old man with a voice that reminded me of my grandfather. His wooden floor was never carpeted and was covered in grease stains as he’d treated his home more like a work shed than a living space. He had millions in stock that he could’ve put toward fixing his home, but some lasting sense of guilt he carried guaranteed that no one could touch that money; it existed only for atonement. And I wondered often what he’d done.
And I wondered more the ethics of taking that money to help others when I didn’t know why he wouldn’t use any of it on his own life. Was it awful that I was so suspicious of how good a person could really be?
People are strange and they’re complex and they often live with buried pain they want to shovel off onto someone else, broken and whole somehow at the same time. I sometimes wish I could set the stories out on a table, the ones I’d collected in those bottles I imagined earlier, and sift through them thematically. If I collected enough of them, would I suddenly understand something profound about the human condition that I haven’t been able to grasp before now?
Who am I kidding? It’s me I want to understand. I think we collect and cherish the stories of others because they give us context for our own story. “Well at least I’m not like that” can so easily also be, “I can see myself in that and am grateful someone else has been through it.”
Maybe if they can endure this or that, so can we? Maybe if we can get behind why they said or did this or that, we can empathize a little more with each other without necessarily dismissing what’s been done. Empathy is a path to forgiveness, after all – maybe mostly because it allows us to forgive ourselves first.
Maybe that’s why I like hearing all these stories – that I might live into some hope that I find my own redemption in them. But in saying that, it occurs to me the absurdity of putting a story in a bottle. These people are not the two or three sentence snippets they’ve shared or I’ve bottled up and taken away. That’s perhaps what makes their stories even better: there’s more to it than what you find out. There’d be more to the story even if you were on a fact-finding mission to get into every little nook and cranny of someone’s life jotted out.
The question is, how do you tell your own? What goes in the bottle and what stays out for you? And what do you do with that story once it’s been put out into the open?
Driving around Denver I’m struck at how, as you’re driving into the mountains, you have this phenomenal view of the dry, desert red and brown clay and rock stretching up until it turns white with the snow. But the rearview mirror is just as stunning in its own right: skyscape and lots of it. Stretches and stretches of flat abyss all the way to Kansas or Nebraska. Where we look can too often determine what we believe about where we came from and where we’re going. Sometimes, you turn the car around, and the drive down the mountain looks completely different from what you saw earlier in the rearview mirror.
The real, hard task of storytelling and story collecting is the grace of perspective we’re willing to give to this story or that. With some people, it’s a lot easier to give that grace than it is with others, and it doesn’t seem to matter what they’ve done so much who they are or as how our connection to them filters the expectations we might have out of them.
That is, the bigot whose bigotry benefits from his giving is a lot easier to “forgive” (or at least put into perspective) as a thirty minute conversation with him I’ll probably never have again than it would have been had he been my cousin or uncle. How strange is it that we can show more compassion for strangers than anyone we regard as “our own”? That said, I think the reverse can sometimes be true too – where “our own” are given more grace than the strangers we encounter. It all seems to go back to us and how we tie ourselves to the people we know and how much responsibility we choose to carry over those relationships. Maybe that’s why the Buddhists put so much import on non-attachment because we should gift as much understanding to the stranger as to anyone else.
But we can’t do any of that if we don’t dive into the stories, if we don’t listen to one another, if we don’t listen to our deepest selves. And, right now, that may be more important than anything else that’s happening in America.