Telling Better Stories


I recently spent a semester studying at the University of Oxford through the SCIO program, where I delivered a TED-esque talk very similar to this. Although previously published via the illustrious medium of Facebook, it seemed worth another share here. Thanks to Will and Ryan for allowing me to (hopefully more than occasionally) hijack the blog. 
I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but King Lear at Blackwell’s was an amazing experience. I know a lot of us went last Tuesday. Personally, I couldn’t recommend it more. It was well worth the £17. Not only was it interesting because it’s Shakespeare (duh), but also because there were only five actors. I don’t know how familiar you might be with King Lear, but there are far more than five characters.

Needless to say, there was a lot of actor-sharing. A single actor would use props like scarves, glasses, or jackets to let the audience know which character he was at the time. So for example, two of King Lear’s daughters are played by a single actress, but we can tell the difference by the different scarves she wears. These two characters would often appear in the same scene, so the actress would wear one scarf and hold up the other as if the scarf were the character. She and the others on stage would look at it, talk to it, touch it. We as the audience come to understand that the object is a person—at least for these few hours on this stage in the middle of a bookstore.

But then I got to thinking: how often do we take this experience out of the bookstore? We understand objects as people, people as objects. Look at me. You probably see dark hair, glasses, and a flower skirt. You’ve already come to understand me as a thing, an object. And I’m not blaming anyone—we all do it. You make assumptions about me based on the way I look, the way I talk, the way I present myself. You see my body and determine I’m a woman. You see my glasses and think I’m smart/hipster/edgy/cool/trying too hard. You see my hair and decide I probably should have just put it up today. And let’s not even talk about all the ways you’ve probably already guessed that I’m not a very practiced public speaker.

You’ve done all of this within seconds. I’m a thing to you.

Maybe, if we’ve ever had a conversation, it’s different for you. Maybe you know I’m from Hawaii, or that C.S. Lewis in Context is my primary tutorial, or that sleeping is my favorite pastime. Maybe you’ve seen me eating too many cakes at teatime. You know facts, statistics, snapshots, if you care to look or remember. But these are all still things.

You might never know my story. You’ll never know that my older brother has special needs. And you’ll never know what I went through growing up as I came to realize what this meant. You’ll never know about the cancer my mom had my sophomore year of high school and the depression that came with it. You won’t know the addictions, the late nights, the angsty journal entries that pervade almost every memory of my growing-up years.

We’ll never talk about the ways I’ve overcome these, that I still fight to overcome these. You won’t feel the hugs from my mom, meet the friends who encouraged me, or hear the words they said. You won’t read the same books in the same way I did. You won’t discover the same epiphanies, or participate in the processes that brought me here.

Because to you, I am an object, a thing easily definable and dismissed, a scarf on a stage in a bookshop.

And to me, you are that.

I don’t know your story—maybe I never will. I may never even know what your primary tutorial is or what state you call home.

And as much as I want to know your story, sometimes I have to remind myself that I can’t. Intimately knowing every person here during a single semester is just not possible, as much as we might converse or interact. And as important as our stories are in the past, what about us in the present? The way we process information, the connections we make, the inevitable influence of our memories?

I guess, maybe, we can’t really know each other. Maybe.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be objects to each other. You are no simple scarf in a play that signifies a name, a voice, a shadow of a personality. You are so much more—and so am I, and so are all of us. That’s just true.

It’s going to take a lot of conversation, and a lot of constant imagination to realize that truth; open, empty rooms in our minds where we allow other people to exist in possibility. Maybe I am more than these glasses or this hair or even this talk. Maybe you are more than a haircut or a smile as we pass by. Maybe you’re on your way to a lecture where you’ll sit with a new British friend, awkwardly attempting to talk about the weather before you break out your phone to text your mom—man, you miss her a lot—and tell her about what you cooked for your food group last night. Maybe your life is just as complex as mine.

None of these things probably happened—and that’s okay, because I humbly realize that I’m no psychic. I don’t actually know. But maybe these stories are an exercise for me in imagination, helping me to see you as more than an object. Maybe stories—even just the ones I make up—will make you and I more human.

In the final scene of King Lear, one character cries over the “body” of another. It moved me to tears. But the “body” was a just a dress that the dead character had worn, draped over the stage. And this was the moment of greatest humanity: that in the telling of the story, the object had become a person.

Let’s tell better stories about each other.

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The concrete and excellent impact which “books” have had on my life…

If you think that reading books just closes you off from the world, making you impractical and impersonal, you should consider what effect interactive, thoroughly involved and participatory reading has had in my life.

1- it introduced me to Spiritual inwardness and much wisdom

2- it helped guide me through no small depression and into action and purposeful life

3- in particular, it led me to volunteer several times and later work two summers at a Summer Camp for people with Special Needs, Camp Barnabas. This was no small feat for a shy, sheltered young man who knew at the time nothing about caring for others or about people with special needs. This in turn led me to be a team leader / staff supervisor at a small Summed Camp in New Mexico (which I thoroughly surprised myself by making not a terrible job of). And these experiences have certainly taught me a variety of excellent skills both practical and people-based (and self-based, like fear-management, which started in many ways with C. S. Lewis and led to volunteering at Barnabas, then working on their team that was in charge of the Rockwall, zipline, and ropes course, and so on — this was supplemented by Kierkegaard, Donald Miller, Dostoyevsky, Pascal…). Come to think of it, the inward life that books taught me, or that I embraced and learned through books, perhaps I ought to say, also provided me with the courage to pursue the possibility of the great, outrageous, living beauty who is my wife now. (Much of this also involved a long-time conversation with God, but the role of “books” generally is undeniable in all my major life decisions, which I value very much and do not believe have been foolish, at least in God’s eyes.)

4- it has helped make dull moments and dull jobs more meaningful or at any rate less dull; by 1st helping me to understand how mundane things tie into the big picture of the universe, humanity, and God in a way that is meaningful to me. Work and the very fabric of this world, however mundane, are holy and good and your conscious perspective about them affects your ability to be bored or exultant. Or 2nd by giving me plenty to think about, poetry and philosophy to learn and recite and dwell on, even while, or perhaps especially while, at work.

5- it has helped me connect with people who have similar thoughts and feelings, even though they may never have seemed to in the first place or never had the same way of thinking about it; it has helped me connect with people who are different from me.

I could go on. “Books” will not close you off to the world anymore than anything else, and, if you let them, if you work with them, they can help you make your life into something practical, beautiful, thoughtful, helpful, and Godly.

(My father and others also helped immensely with all of this, but this post is specifically about the influence of “books,” read with thorough involvement, like I said. If you don’t believe me, it’s your loss.)

Observations on Secularism, Christianity, and Islam

You don’t have to read this to get my comments, but in all fairness this blog post is what inspired my blog post:

http://theweek.com/articles/452475/worlds-most-ancient-christian-communities-are-being-destroyed–no-cares

Several things are striking about this:

1) U. S. involvement is in many ways the cause or catalyst of this situation. And yet

2) U. S. involvement is acting on a set of Islamic laws which condone and encourage and even command such behavior – the US doesn’t provide the evil actions to Islam, they provide the incentive for Islam to show its worst. (Mimetic rivalry is at the heart of this, at the heart of the U. S. and of Islam.)

3) There is no real explanation for why “a secular law” is of much real benefit for the situation precisely because America’s involvement in the Middle East **is secular** and is exactly the proof that people ought to recognize as proof that nothing about being secular will make you neutral or fair or just or balanced towards those who disagree with you.

In other words, in conclusion, while a spirit of peace and hope is essential to reconciliation (I think St. Patrick, St. Francis), it is also important to recognize that in a world of people with hellish desires, you will get hellish things (from Secularists and Islamists and Christians) unless you can spread the source of hope and peace – Christ himself.

(This is why, in the past, I have quoted Dumbledore imploring Cornelius Fudge to see reason about thw death eaters as being relevant to the situation with Islam – because Dumbledore is also the man who most of all offered his friendship and forgiveness, his humanity, to Lord Voldemort, by always calling him by name, speaking calmly and with reason. We need an attitude which recognizes violent worldviews and cultures caught up in mimetic rivalries, but which also speaks with grace into them. An attitude of ignorance will only compound the problem.)