Sometimes on long walks with my teenage daughter, she will say, “I want to hear a story from your childhood.” I usually react by making a joke or asking her a question or distracting her with some observation of the world. To share some childhood episode from my life is more than a transfer of information and ideas. To tell stories from my childhood is to relive those moments. To tell the story of my childhood to my daughter is to ask her to relive it with me, and there are many moments from childhood I don’t want to relive.
Storytelling is the most intimate form of communication. It’s a way of inviting the listener to enter into what we have known, what we have suffered, what we have overcome. When we listen well to another’s story, it blooms within the body, creating an intimate connection between teller and listener—heart races, eyes well with tears, the belly shakes with laughter. And when we share something we have lived, a joy or suffering from our own lives, the listener is invited into our very being: to see what we have seen, hear what we have heard, touch and feel what we have known. In this way, storytelling is a sacred transaction. The stories of our lives are an offering, a kind of confession, an intimate revelation. And when they are received, we find the story has become a tether, binding us to one another.
When I was fourteen years old, I attended a three-week-long summer camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains just outside of Yosemite. The camp was full of summer leisure—long afternoons spent sunbathing and swimming, day hikes up into the mountains, Capture the Flag, skit nights, crafts, square dancing, and sing-alongs by the campfire. It was also a Christian camp. We spent some portion of every morning by ourselves in silence, reading the Bible, praying, and journaling. We had what were called “cabin devotionals,” in which we reflected in groups about our lives and talked about basic Christian stories and values. Each night one of the counselors would give a talk, often a testimonial about their own experience of the Christian faith.
I am acutely aware of the destructive, hurtful, or just plain deadening aspects of the Christian religion. I have listened to the painful stories of many friends and some family members about the way the Christian faith twisted their sense of self and the world, promoted hatred and judgment toward others, filled them with loathing toward their own human impulses, blinded them to basic truths, or simply wasted their time with meaningless words and hypocritical teachings. This was not my experience. I grew up, for the most part, with a healthy, life-giving experience of the Christian faith—a faith that enlarged my compassion, gave me a sense of worth despite suffering, and provided me with a source of love and meaning. My father (who was also my pastor growing up), the people who went to our church, the counselors at the summer camp were funny, vulnerable, passionate, creative, loving people. And they drew these qualities out in me.
On one of the final days of the last summer I attended camp, the dean asked if I would give my testimony at the closing campfire. He encouraged me to tell the story of my life as honestly as I could, including any doubts, struggles, or questions I had about the Christian faith. I remember spending the afternoon walking through the woods, trying to compose some sort of talk to give at the campfire.
It had been a very painful year. My father, in what amounted to a public scandal for our small town, had left the church where he was a volunteer pastor, divorced my mother, and moved in with his secretary. My mother, in the throes of mental illness, had recently been hospitalized after spending weeks driving haphazardly across the United States, believing she was being pursued by the FBI.
I had no idea how to talk about any of this. I didn’t know how to tell a story about the mixed admiration and resentment I felt toward my father, the shame and concern I felt toward my mother. I did not know how to order this experience—how to extract the hurt and anxiety and shape it into a story. I had never heard anyone talk about mental illness, divorce, adultery. I needed someone to listen to me, to ask honest questions, to help me arrange the confused, broken pieces of my adolescent life.
The night of my testimony we met on a rocky outcropping that looked over the treed mountains. High up in that remote valley, the stars felt as close as fireflies. Songs were sung and then I was invited to come up and share my story. I stood in front of the great orange bonfire, a shadowed outline in front of my peers, and tried to put my life into story. But I had no words, no understanding, no story to tell. I stood suffering in silence and then, finally, lowered my head and wept.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” Maya Angelou once wrote. For most of my young life, I walked around feeling the agony of an untold story. It wasn’t until I went in search of healing that I found the shapes, the patterns, the listening companions to help narrate my life into words.
Sharing our stories is a fundamental practice of healing. We can’t seem to move forward, can’t access our fullhearted passions, until we first sew our experiences together into story: This is what happened. These are the chain of events that led me to now. This is how I learned to find love. This is how I survived abuse. This is how I trace the origin of fear. Once upon a time I was at point A, then suffered B, which sent me to C. Now, thirty years later, I find myself at point D.
A story is a handful of breadcrumbs leading to home. A story is a divining rod and we the subterranean river. A story is a map and we the mapmakers plotting the landscapes of our lives. We need a story to locate ourselves in the world. Without a true story, told from the ground of our own lives, we can often feel lost or, worse, imprisoned by the stories others have constructed for us.
In recovery and support groups, in psychotherapy, in truth and justice work, we use story to trace our wounds, to express our identity, to plot our trajectory, to unearth our collective trauma. We tell a story called I Have Worth, a story titled Meeting the Expectations of Others, a story named I Am My Sister’s Keeper, a story called Hiding. Telling stories about our lives is how we work out our freedom. To place our lives into story and tell it to others—whether dark or hopeful—makes healing possible.
From time to time—among friends, over meals with strangers, in small groups, or on long plane rides—I receive the gift of attention. “What’s your story?” someone will ask. “How did you get here?” Every time I tell it, it’s different. Every time I receive the gift of attention, my soul expands. And every time I finish my story, I discover myself standing in a new land.
The story begins at a dinner table with a son scrambling to keep his father’s attention.
It begins in a car driven by a mother who believes she’s fleeing the government.
It begins with eating honeycomb stolen from my grandfather’s bees.
It begins in tears. It begins in awe.
It begins in a remote cabin walking a baby daughter to sleep with a heart full of grief.
It begins in a snowstorm searching for love.
It begins in a convent.
It begins with a kiss from a beautiful Sardinian chef. It begins in loss. It begins in hope.
It starts out familiar and then becomes strange and uncertain.
It begins in the middle, loops back, then falls forward into a deep realization.
We map our world in story. The world falls apart. We map a new world. Again and again we story our lives in order to situate ourselves: I am here, not there. I am here and long to go there. Once found, new possibilities emerge. Curiosity rises within us. We feel the pull to discover new countries, traverse new oceans.
The longer we live, the more we understand our lives not as a single timeline leading to a particular end point, not as Jacob’s ladder rising step-by-step toward perfection, but as a landscape: a topography with rivers and forests and deserts and springs and high mountains and vales and all of it undiscovered, all of it unknown, with hidden creatures and monsters and spirits and village folk and folk angels and holy sites and desecrated sites and veins of gold and veins of fool’s gold and all of it a terrifying, wondrous mystery.
This is an excerpt from Between the Listening and the Telling chapter 2: “Confession.”