Listening to Our Stories

Listening to Our Stories

Different people in my life know different parts of me. My younger nieces and nephews know me for the Silly Cindy stories I tell. My English as a Second Language students know me as their teacher and their friend. The people I worship with know me as a pastoral caregiver and a worship leader. There are many facets to my life and many stories that make up the composite whole. The stories interconnect and complement each other.

But I fear that sometimes I am known for one single story. Over a decade ago, I experienced a significant long term episode of depression that debilitated me. I could no longer work at the job I loved. I organized and spoke at conferences and churches, and managed a grant program for a non-profit. Suddenly, my primary source of identity was gone. My mental health crisis was public knowledge. I could sense people’s awkwardness when they talked with me and asked, “How are you doing?” Even years after I recovered, I sometimes hear a lingering question about my health and an unmentioned reference back to that crisis. But I know they are thinking about it.

Sometimes people are solely defined by their struggle with mental health. Sometimes their diagnosis becomes a label that overshadows the rest of who they are. People fail to see their dignity and worth. Other people hear someone’s diagnosis and drop them into a category that objectifies them.

We know people best by the stories they tell about themselves and stories told about them. Knowing one story about someone is an invitation to knowing other stories about that person. People will sometimes say they like my speaking voice. it’s helpful to know that in college I had a daily radio program where I read books on the air. That story leads to the story about when I ate a hot pepper that numbed my lips just before I went on the air, and muddled through the time and the station tag. Or the time I pronounced the sportsperson’s name, Lemonjello, and tried to say it with a fancy French accent—when it was actually pronounced simply as Lemonjello.

Understanding a person through the lens of one single story is dangerous. We may see the color of a person’s skin, their gender, their political affiliation, and make many assumptions that are not true of that person, or in general not true of that person’s race or gender.

Someone recently wrote about a TED talk she heard by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie on “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie said, “The consequence of the single story is this. It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

As a single identifier, the diagnosis of a mental illness and the resulting stigma, can shut the doors to a deeper understanding of that person. That’s why sharing our stories in small groups, in our faith communities, with our family and friends, increases our love and respect for ourselves and for each other. Sharing our stories transforms our life picture from black and white to splendid color.

Listen to the stories people tell and treasure the gift of their stories. Only then, will you truly know them and value them.

About Rev. Cindy Holtrop:
Rev. Cindy Holtrop likes to tell stories–especially to children, and when she preaches. She is the board secretary for Pathways and newsletter and website editor.