On Sunday afternoons, we gather in a living room with slim purple studies of the Book of Romans in our hands. We balance snack plates and inquisitive babies on our knees, and when the time to share prayer needs rolls around, our conversations about parenting struggles and house buying and family relationships are so normal that I forget.
Only later do I remember that I was sitting with physicians, pilots, ministry leaders. Artists. Professors. Homemakers (and the forgotten significance of this last vocation deserves a post of its own).
A career isn’t by any means the full measure of a person, but I sometimes forget that other spheres exist for these men and women whom I see in only one context. They are respected figures in their fields and crafts; in some other time and place, I’d likely feel intimidated in their presence, or wait with bated breath to hear them deliver a lecture.
When I remember their weekday whereabouts, I’m humbled to be in the company of friends who regularly agonize over the life-and-death decisions of patients, the learning struggles of students, and the cultivation of souls. Their experience gives weight to their words.
Lately I’ve been reminded that our histories — both hidden and shared — can bestow the same weight.
Most of us don’t wear our past struggles and victories on our sleeves. Y once told me about meeting a girl whose joy was so constant and exuberant, it almost puzzled him. A short while later, he learned that her father had passed away a few years prior, and this detail along with others from her background shifted his initial perspective: the happiness that had seemed like a quirk was now grounds for respect. Hers was a joy neither cheaply bought nor lightly held.
In our world of blurbs and brief bios, I’ve had enough “second impressions” of my own to slow my pace in reading people. The reckless driver in the next lane, a brusque cashier at checkout, even the writer of the online article whose view diverges from my own — are they really as they appear in that single interaction?
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 46)
Each of us bears untold stories, many of them unfinished. Remembering that those around me have been — and are being — shaped by events and trials I can’t always detect is a practice that helps me not to “think of myself more highly than [I] ought” (Rom. 12:3). In this way I’m learning to be a wiser and longer-term reader of people.
But to take it one step further, into situations where I am the one being read by another — ah, this is harder still.
As a writer, I’m often tempted to tell the whole back story.
In our day we earn the right to be heard by sharing life stories that are authentic and relevant. Human connections are woven when we cast out cords to which others catch on and say, “Me, too.” So I’ve written in the past about postpartum depression and a mystery illness, about the unmoored loneliness of moving and the experience of being a minority (as well as majority) member in society, because I know these are a means of looking others in the eye and lending weight to the topics central to my focus — especially the joy, and the utter trustworthiness of my Lord.
But there are other experiences that have shaped me as deeply as the ones above. The threat of suicide by someone close to me when I was a child, a relationship that left deep wounds on both sides, a decades-long learning process of praying for a very loved unbeliever — each of these has added something indelible to the way I view the world, and the person I’ve become. In the wider scope of my writing, sharing these would likely fill in some gaps, and bolster what I write about love and loss and glad surrender.
Yet the details of these stories are not mine to tell.
They belong also to the raw stretches of others’ pasts, to chapters that are not finished, and to the dignity of fellow sojourners. Perhaps someday, for some good reason, I may ask permission to share them, and perhaps it will be granted. For now, because I’m building a life among the living and not simply a corpus of work, the hand that stills my voice is my own.
“That’s all very well,” you might say. “As long as you know you run the risk of seeming glib or out-of-touch or unfeeling. Pack up your moments of impact and keep them in a corner. But is that really all they’re good for?”
Well, no. To my surprise, I’ve been discovering that such stories don’t stay neatly folded away in the attic of personal memory.
A friend in college once stopped me cold in my fumbling efforts to express empathy: “It’s okay. I know you understand. I can see it in your face.” It was the first time I realized that my unrecorded history was a part of me whether I aired it or not, and I could allow it to keep me tender — or wear it on the outside defensively, like a callous.
In the writing realm, I’m encouraged to note that many of the authors I love best earned my trust not because of barefaced tell-alls, but because there was some hint — something in their language, or perspective, or tone — that made me feel that they would understand. Over time I learned of the struggles of their “background” lives, though rarely through their own published work. What they encountered, they used to deepen their redemptive portrayal of the world for others, and my hope is to do the same.
I know I won’t always be successful. But I believe there is a charge given to Christ-followers who write, and perhaps to all of us who have stories under our skin: we must allow ourselves to be read, even misunderstood, and refuse to let the tales we’ve lived go to waste. For we can be hardened by our pasts, and made bitter because the people we encounter aren’t aware of the hidden weight behind our words — or we can choose to let them make us softer towards our fellow man.
If we take the Author of our faith at His Word, all things work together for our good; this is as true for us as artists as it is for us as children. All His ground is meant for our growth… even the layers that no one else sees.
And so a prayer I learned as a child loops back around to me today as a scribbler of words:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.“
– Francis of Assisi.