We each have a story to tell. Each story is interesting, instructive and very human. In fact, because of our humanity, each story is about how we came to be who and why we are. Some are prophetic, needing to be told. Some stories are not yet ready to be told, but are percolating within, waiting to emerge.
Stories are the way values, morals and ethics are relayed. We come from a storied culture. The native peoples around the world retain their history and culture through story. We have done the same. One of the largest storybooks is the Bible. Yes, there are commandments, rules and lists of genealogies. But what sticks with most of us are the stories.
Think of your favorite Bible story. Is it about Joseph, his coat of many colors and the betrayal by his brothers? Is it about Jonah being swallowed by a large fish (or whale)? Is it about the son who has wronged his father and yet is still loved upon his return by that father? Is it about the hopeful stories of Sarah or Ruth? All of these stories tell of a culture that is remarkably different from ours, yet the truth within these stories spans those differences. Stories do that.
Just because they are “stories” doesn’t mean they are not true at the most basic of levels. They are about humanity: our foibles, our triumphs, our loves and our mundane lives. But it is in our humanity that we find the divine.
In the Quaker tradition, it is through the listening to others that we find the divine within. Each of us is worthy; each of us has an inner light that can shine out. In the Hasidic tradition, it is believed that everything contains the essence of God, that we have a divine essence because of the act of Creation.
So it is important not only that we tell our own stories, but that we also simply listen to others’ stories. Through them we learn who they are, from where and whom they come, and why they are who they are.
A somewhat cliched phrase is that you can’t love or appreciate a person until or unless you know them. One way to become acquainted with people is to listen to their stories. Sadly, we live in an increasingly isolated culture, one where we twitter in a limited number of characters or one where we think we are creating relationships through Facebook. I’m not saying that these modern tools are not good, but I am saying that it is very difficult to get to know a person using these methods. We just don’t seem to be listening to our stories much anymore.
I remember quite fondly the hours spent listening to my grandmother’s stories. I didn’t always appreciate them because I thought I had better things to do with my time than listen to my “irrelevant” grandmother, but I am now so very thankful that I did, on occasion, listen.
I learned in part where I came from: good Mormon stock working ranches and farms in northern Utah and Idaho. I learned about hard work and heartache. I learned about how infused my world was with the values and ethics of my grandmother, and her mother and father before her. I recognize today how very much of who I am, what I value, and how I approach the world is based on the stories I heard as a youth.
As my mother lay dying over a decade ago, I realized that she had not kept a diary and that we had not talked much about her life; she chose not to tell me her stories. I thought I knew some important facts about her, for I had lived with her for 18 years of my life. At the same time, I recognized that because we had not told our stories to each other, she did not really know me, nor I her. What a loss. I grieve that to this day. I missed understanding my mother’s divine essence because I missed her stories.
I wonder how unique I am in not talking to my parents, not listening to them, not really getting to know them. And I also realize our lifestyle does not promote telling our stories anymore. Not only do we spend our time twittering and linking to Facebook, we run ourselves ragged keeping up with all that we think we must do. As a result, we have no time to tell our stories — even to ourselves.
We all come from the same mysterious source. We are all inherently worthy. I happen to believe that God loves us all — even those of us who are far from perfect. He loves us in our diversity in an unconditional way. It may be because the Divine listens and observes our lives, and in doing so learns what is so very precious about each of us.
How many of us see a stranger, someone we do not know and make a judgment? It is so very easy to do. Our judgments tend to classify people as stereotypes. Instead, if we knew their stories, we might recognize their humanity and our commonality.
What we fail to do so very often is believe that each human participant is worthy of our respect. Why? Because we do not know the stranger, the person who is “different.” We fail to listen to their stories. In fact, we fail to even ask about their stories because we are so very busy being uncomfortable with their being different.
This past Thursday night, there was an event held at the Bangor Public Library where some teens took the time to ask those with fewer advantages than they had to tell them their stories. What resulted was an opening up of possibility for appreciation and respect between the teens and the storytellers; what happened was a chance for us to listen and learn to respect as well, and find our common humanity. What might we do to offer this kind of opportunity more frequently? Can you imagine knowing others more deeply through their stories? I can.
The gospel hymn “This Little Light of Mine” is a favorite of mine; you might even call it my theme song. It is because I believe so very deeply that we each have a divine light that needs to shine. One way of letting that light shine is to tell our stories and to encourage others to tell their stories so that we can listen to them and see their divine light.
“What is your story?” I would love to listen to it.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.