How do we discover who we are?
On summer evenings to escape the heat, my family carried iced tea and cigarettes to the back porch and told stories. The adults mostly talked and the kids mostly listened, while insight and humor and regret were traded like baseball cards. We sat in the dark to keep the bugs down and to help us think we were cooler than we were. “Do you remember when Uncle Clen broke the kitchen table with his science project?” “What about the time I ran up three flights of stairs with an armload of books, skidded to a stop at the door of my sophomore English class, and my petticoat fell out of my dress in a heap on the floor!” “How long was it after Jimmy died that Louise found his gun and shot herself?” Sometimes old hurts raised their voices as we reminisced, or sorrows surfaced, or anger flashed through us again. Sometimes we got so tickled my dad couldn’t breathe. Sometimes the punchlines changed, and no one worried if a good one was repeated.
I learned more than storytelling on my family’s porch, and on the other ones which hung off the apartments and houses where friends lived. How do you know what you value? How do you figure out what you stand for or against? How do you learn what to give your time to or heart to or money to? How does the still, small voice within you reveal itself? Family stories get us started and then most of us spend the rest of our lives deciding what to keep and what to shed from that earliest system of influence. Friendship stories and romantic stories and work stories play their part as we mature. Literature helps. Stories of struggle and faith offer solace along the way.
How do we discover who we are? We listen for stories that tell us honestly who we are as human beings and who we might one day be, and then we stretch to embody the best of them.
Start with the people closest by—family if you’ve got them, friends if you don’t. Listen to the narrative they use to make sense of life and themselves. Ask about the lessons they’ve learned. Ask about their heroes. Ask them where it hurts. You’ll hear about lost opportunities and lost keys, misplaced glasses and priorities, heartaches and headaches, things done and left undone. You’ll be witnessing a life in this telling, and at some point, you’ll begin to give voice to yours. Connect what you think to what you feel, and see if you can locate the genesis of your abiding passions. What makes you really mad? What makes you deliriously happy? What happened to shape within you such strong convictions? What are you most afraid of? What do you have to lose?
Laura Wexler, co-founder of Baltimore’s Stoop Stories, told a full south transept last night that an engaging oral narrative is at once foreign and familiar. “A person tells her own unique story, and though her context and background may be entirely different from yours, you find common ground, if the story teller is authentic. ‘I’ve felt like that,’ you’re surprised to admit. ‘I’ve struggled like that. I’ve thought about that too.’” Mostly we don’t resonate with stories of triumph, Wexler reported. “We identify with other people’s losses because we’ve had them ourselves.” And if the world doesn’t feel safer to hear about someone else’s mishap, it does feel smaller, and maybe that’s what we long for most.
Learn your own story, and your city’s story, your country’s story and the beautiful, worrisome story of humankind, and you are more likely to have what you need to act and make a difference now in a world that’s too small for anything but truth. The scripture has a story to tell, too.
Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Ruth and Jesus all begin to find themselves at the moment when they feel most lost and most alone: striking out on their own, away from home for the first time, at odds with fathers and brothers, mothers and wives, pharaohs and potentates, not sure what their work or alliances should be. Their discovery was to know their family system story well enough to keep what they needed, to drop the rest, and to let the test of the wilderness be its blessing.
Our most meaningful struggles show us what we’re made of and reveal this truth: we are each other’s business.