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.