Monday, April 4, 2016

Our Untold Stories

Years ago, I read an article about an elderly man who died alone in his long-term city apartment. When people came to empty out his things, they discovered stacks and stacks of handwritten journals containing the names of all the people he had been introduced to over the course of his life. No details, no narrative. Just the names and dates documenting the people he had encountered sufficiently to learn their names. The journals served as memory. But they also reminded him of the breadth of his life, those who had influenced his life experiences in both large and small ways. It was a personal form of acknowledgment for all those human connections in spite of what may have appeared on surface to be a life lived alone.

Over the course of our lifetime, we have myriad experiences, seemingly just in the course of one day. Experiences of people, places, events, visuals, sounds, tastes, movement, ideas, and role situations. We typically attach to each of these experiences some adjective(s) to denote our relationship to them: good, bad, delightful, horrible, memorable, forgettable, etc. Some of these stay in our conscious awareness constantly; others disappear into the deep recesses of “forgotten” memories, accessible only with immense effort and perhaps emotional courage.

We interpret those experiences based upon what we have been pre-taught to see, as well as conclusions we have cumulatively drawn – whether they are truly accurate or not. Taken together, these interpretations and conclusions make up our life story. A story filled with gaps, faint images defying our attempts of definition, and misinterpretations due to our limited awareness of their broader context and circumstances and the shortcomings of our limited maturity and capacity to understand. Our story is not our Self; it is only that which our  Self has experienced – an important distinction often lost on us.

My experiences – of family makeup and circumstances, of place and geography, of influences of friends and teachers, of directions followed and sights seen – are far different from yours. My life story is unlike any other person’s story; your story is equally unique and personal from mine. Each person we meet has an extensive, untold story that will never to be revealed to us, a story likely never even to be fully revealed to him-/herself.

It would likely take another lifetime just to tell you the complete story of my life – if I could even remember that entire story.  Any autobiography I could write would, at best, be only an excerpt, a sampling, a slice which perhaps hints at a whole. Many feel a need to tell their story more from a desire to be understood than for the telling itself. But what does it actually matter if others hear our story and understand or not? What elements will we choose to select out of the vast database of our experiences? Which ones actually reveal us, and which serve to hide and protect the unseen, the unrevealed? Will such a telling alter the course of our future experiences, or simply reinforce the place in which we are already stuck?

We reflexively make judgments about the people we encounter, based upon an impression we quickly and instinctively form. That judgment is likely based upon a momentary sliver of that person’s story, a deep, vast story we will never be privileged to hear. Nor can we ever fully comprehend how and why we came together at our particular moment in time – though we may have our suspicions.

That old gentleman’s journals recorded no judgments, no conclusions about the people he encountered. Maybe in our encounters we might show someone a similar cautionary respect for their untold story. Perhaps a simple acknowledgment that we passed through and shared a moment in our lives, for a brief instant or more, is just enough before we move on.

©   2016   Randy Bell               


Tyanna said...

Excellent reminder, Randy. I particularly was drawn to the line, "Our story is not our Self; it is only that which our Self has experienced..." Thanks for this pensive pause.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Randy for your thoughts on the old gentleman. I'm reminded of a Korean poet, Ko Un, who wrote a poem for every person he can remember meeting in this life. The project I think is complete, 30 volumes including thousands of poems. It seems both an act of respect, and a futile one, meaning silence might be better.

Gauntowl said...

Like you, the thought of writing a memoir seems daunting. I have decided to choose a half dozen or so turning points in my life that made a difference in my life afterwards. Now if I could only decide which points...

Rick Jones