‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’

So writes Maya Angelou, and I wonder if it’s true.

I wrote a blog post with this title on another site a year or so ago, which I stumbled across this morning. “There are so many untold stories, so many wonderful untold stories,” I wrote. “Or stories that have only been told once, when they could be told thousands of times.”

Millions of stories don’t get told; does that mean millions are living in suppressed agony? Well, millions are, but we don’t usually attribute it to a lack of being able to tell their story.  But maybe there is a link.  I think I’ve quoted Isak Dinesen before saying “To be human is to have a story to tell.” Most of mine dribble out in conversation with family and friends, but that is life-giving to me – to be able to share my experiences and thoughts, to have them understood, to feel connected – this is totally vital.  And I can share them on a wider platform too.  Why isn’t this true of everyone?  Or do people just not want to tell their stories?

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and there’s a fascinating comparison of parenting styles between American households of different income levels. .  A sociologist, Annette Lareau, did a pile of research across a number of families with children of the same age and discovered essentially only two main parenting styles, which divided pretty neatly along class lines.  The middle class parents (stereotypically with high aspirations and heavy involvement in the kids’ free time) actively encouraged their kids to reason, negotiate, assert themselves through their parenting style; the children grew up with a certain sense of ‘entitlement’. By contrast the kids raised with a different philiosophy in the poorer families, were characterized by “an emerging sense of distance, distrust & constraint.”  These are gross generalisations I know, and Gladwell isn’t praising one parenting style over another from a moral perspective, but he says that the middle-class parenting style prepares us to find and get our way in the modern world more effectively.  I think it says something about the connection between our level of security and confidence in relation to our influence, and our willingness to participate and tell our story.  And why we might need to try harder to hear the stories that don’t get so much airtime – be it on the level of friendship, neighbourly interaction, or the global stage.

It makes me think of my friend Nyasha who works in Zimbabwe with those involved with and affected by the political violence. There has been incredible violence and injustice shown over a number of years across the country, and it has left people with obvious and enormous practical needs. What Nyasha does is bring people together to tell their stories. They have to listen to each other. The survivors and perpetrators. And somehow, talking and listening opens up the window to move past their bitterness and anger, and move forward together.

I realise more and more how much I want to hear and share (good) stories, and yet even in myself (middle-class, educated, white) I sense an enormous reluctance. My stories aren’t any good. I don’t tell that story well. Other people tell them better. None of my stories are impressive; they don’t even feel are finished. I don’t know her well enough to tell her story. Or, from the perspective of some one working in relief and development: my story doesn’t count because I am white and over-privileged and belong to a major former colonising power. My stories don’t deserve to be heard above the level of anecdotes to my friends.

But if we all bow out like that, all that’s left is the people with the most confidence or the biggest microphones and not a lot changes.

Surely the bigger challenge is to find the stories that don’t get told and tell them.  And to be willing to tell mine when asked. I get frustrated in my job that so many good stories don’t get told, or in the charity sector they get told like this: “look how this situation has TOTALLY changed because of YOUR DONATION and OUR PROJECT, so please give some MORE”; or “look at this terrible situation which we can FIX if you give us MONEY you kind rich people.”  The world is more complicated than that.  The problems and the answers are more complicated.  Are we too afraid to tell real, complicated, human stories because then it’s harder to find a quick solution?

I think there’s a yes somewhere in the answer. It just takes a lot more time to listen than to get on and do something, and I am in the camp of people who like to get on and do something.  The hardest thing about writing a blog of stories is that I don’t always find them – but that is clearly because I am not istening enough. Because they are there!

A good friend of mine is writing a blog this year recording his progress as he seeks to find out the middle name of a stranger each day. It means he has to engage total strangers in conversation every day. Terrifying.  But amazing and pro-active, and he says it’s making him much more open to engaging with people wherever he goes (a small miracle in London).

I’m taking some inspiration from his pro-activity and am going to find some more stories to tell.


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