My granddad used to tell us war stories during holidays. He talked about World War II, about the Germans, Christmas in the snow (when his feet turned black in his boots), and the Battle of the Bulge. I was more interested in playing with my cousins back then or sneaking extra dessert in the kitchen, but before it was too late, I requested he write some of his stories down. After he finally did, that treasured journal went into safe keeping with me. When Granddad passed away a few years ago, I pulled out his old stories and cried through every page. One of the things he wrote was this: “If you didn’t know how to pray when you got in the Army, it sure didn’t take long to learn”—wisdom from the 99th infantry.
There’s a lonely place in every person in which he or she hopes to share the journey with someone who will listen. Stories bring us out of hiding, and we find belonging. Or, we discover the rare bird of reconciliation. I personally love what theologian Miroslav Volf calls the ancient ritual of hospitality: “Drinking coffee together.”
Recently, my wife and I made a practice of having more friends over. It’s not because we are obligated for church reasons, kids’ talent-show practices, or baby showers, but because we really like our friends. Plus, it’s impossible to go at life alone. In the spirit of community, we’ve tried to ask good questions like: What’s your most embarrassing moment? How did your family handle conflict? How are you really doing? The answers get told in stories. We tell about the highs and lows of our weeks, and we often joke about them. We’ve laughed until we’ve cried and cried until we’ve laughed. In these times, I realize my soul craves more than a quick Facebook fix. I was made for real relationships. Like children, we all enjoy good stories, but until we really engage with the people underneath the stories, it’s too easy to judge.
When I hear people’s stories, the people make more sense. A seasoned therapist and author named Mary Pipher wrote an article titled “My Most Spectacular Failure.” She discussed her frustration, annoyance, and general struggle with hard clients, sharing honestly about her own weaknesses (particularly having a holier-than-thou attitude and wanting to write off certain individuals). She admonished young counselors to learn from her mistakes and to always find something to respect in their clients. She also wrote of the wise old therapist, Dr. Harry Aponte, saying that he “couldn’t work with people unless he saw something of himself in them and they saw something of themselves in him. Just as respect tends to be mutual, so does contempt.”
There are suffering, hurt, anger, sadness, joy, and hope under every story. When someone shares a memory with another person, that moment is priceless. People are human, valuable, and worth knowing, and when we open our ears and hearts without judgement, a safe space for storytelling emerges.
Not all of us are counselors, pastors, or social workers, but we can all sit in the privileged place of listening to people. Our undivided attention is a gift. People’s childhood days, teenage years, and greatest fears (of rabid bats in one’s garage, say) have a lot to say about who they really are and who they’re becoming. As a young therapist myself, I’ve had the honor of hearing some really funny and tragic stories this past year, and underneath the grit and grime of life, there’s something incredible: we all show a glimpse of God. In the words of Don Chaffer from Waterdeep, “Everyone’s beautiful.” Though we’re marred by hate, murder, lust, infidelity, and the general gloom of a world fading away, we are all cracks of light.
Listening, in those instances, is like providing water to a thirsty traveler. We get to honor the tale-teller’s past and present. Everyone wants their pains and dreams respected, and those relationships grow best face to face, eye to eye, and soul to soul. The exchange of raw stories builds intimacy; that is the currency of community.
My grandad wrote in his WWII journal, “Emotions were mixed with fear, anger, depressions, loneliness, battle fatigue, and exhaustion from lack of sleep and sadness…If it hadn’t been for God, I don’t think I would have made it.” When I heard his story again, it was sobering to think that I was even alive to read it. If Doyle Morrow had been killed in the war, my mom wouldn’t exist. Neither would I or my three boys. Granddad’s war stories shout the goodness of God.
Amid the busy-ness of life, many of us are screaming, “Will you hear my story? Can you look me in the eye and listen? I want to be heard. I want to be known.” Stop and listen to the tale. There’s a person in the telling.