A recurring theme in this column is that of story. We watch them, write them, tell them, hear them. We tell stories that are true, some that are made up (for all kinds of reasons). We tell short ones and long ones — funny, sad, serious, and lighthearted.
We are the stories we tell and the stories we believe. It is also true that the more stories we know about the people around us the more whole we will be. That is why reading is important. That is why being around people who are different than us is important. Being aware of the stories of other people and assimilating those into how we treat each other makes us more human.
February is Black History Month; the theme is “The Black Family”. It is one of several national and ethnic history months in the United States. By focusing on one group, we have an opportunity to arrive at a deeper understanding of who we are as a nation.
There are three proverbs in the Old Testament book of Proverbs back-to-back that speak to the importance of hearing each other’s experiences. The first is typically set in a law court. It says, “He who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (18:17). The image that usually comes to mind involves three parties: one listening and two giving their stories. Now, imagine only two parties. The one who states the case first is me, the one who comes to examine my case is you. No one likes this very much. I do not like to have my narrative challenged, much less changed.
I am not suggesting we rewrite history by eliminating truth (although we have all done it and will continue to do so). I am suggesting that we could deepen and broaden our history and thus make it more accurate. This will also make room for everyone. We do this with our faith. We do it in our businesses. We do it as our families grow over time. We have all had the experience of getting to know another’s story and as a result our respect and love for them grows.
The second speaks to a way of charting a course ahead which we have adopted, although imperfectly, from the beginning of the American experiment. “The lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders.” (Proverbs 18:18). This one has been especially challenging for us in recent years. Although I would contend that we are still trending better when it comes to our casting of lots. (See the movie “Free State of Jones” or LBJ’s 1948 senate primary runoff for a couple of easy to find examples).
To be fair, the idea of casting lots in the Old Testament was nothing like voting today. What is important is that a process (however flawed) is agreed upon and we all live with the result, with the opportunity to do it again every two years. What has happened recently is that we have been forced to hear the narratives of people who disagree with us even on things as basic as facts. It is tempting to dismiss others’ viewpoints, but we do so at our peril — even if we do think “they” are crazy. This is caused by our failure to pay attention to the previous proverb for too long.
The third requires us to recognize that we are all human beings navigating vastly different lives and circumstances. ‘A brother helped is like a strong city, but quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” (Proverbs 18:9). We must see each other as brothers and sisters and seek to help each other. This removes the threat that some feel when their story is being examined and found to be incomplete or flawed.
It is important for us to be able to tell our stories so that they can be heard. The goal is not to diminish or denigrate others but to enrich and gain understanding. Helping each other builds strength, quarrelling builds prisons.
We must come out of our trenches and stop firing at each other. From a faith perspective it gets us closer to God. It makes us more gracious. It makes us wiser. It makes us more apt to listen.
It makes us better teachers and communicators. We do not have to give up what we believe. We do need to allow ourselves to be examined by other views. I know, that will never be popular. Listen and speak during Black History Month — celebrate all of our stories.