He leaned against the coconut tree, arms crossed over his chest, wrinkling his mustard yellow tank top. Mud and sweat stains covered cloth that had been worn thin through repeated hand washings. After two days of working in the mud and rain, we all basked in the sunlight, allowing the warmth to seep into our skin and drive out the chill of dampness as we waited for the tools needed for the next job.
Six trips to Haiti had accustomed me to a different pattern of life than the clock-drive culture I am familiar with. Long moments of sitting and waiting in between jobs was not uncommon, and it provided a chance to chat in broken English/Creole with new friends, or to sit and simply observe.
I took a long drink from my water bottle, sneaking the chance to glance at him again. Chin jutted forward, eyes staring off into the distance, one bare foot propped against the tree behind him. Only fourteen years old, but that expression on his face made him seem older. I remembered meeting him on my first trip to Haiti six years earlier, but the teenager before me now seemed a far cry from that mischievous little kid who had followed us around, joking and laughing endlessly.
There was still plenty of mischief in the teenager. When he did smile, his whole face lit up. But his laugh was quieter now, and there was an air of maturity and responsibility to him, as he looked after the younger boys who also helped out around the camp where my team had come to work.
Something about the way he stood—leaning so casually against the coconut tree yet with an air of readiness to his posture, that paradox of rest and alertness wrapped up in the lanky limbs of a fourteen year old—caught my eye that day.
Instantly, the writer side of my brain set to work, firing off questions. I wondered what sorts of hopes and dreams he had for the future. What fears whispered inside his head. What events shaped the person he was now.
I wanted to know his story.
Discovering new stories is one of my favorite things about traveling. Not only does traveling broaden our horizons in terms of locations visited, but it expands our understanding of the people we meet and the lives they live. It is woefully easy to force stereotypes and misconceptions upon people who live a few blocks down the street, let alone on the other side of the world, and even easier still if our interactions are limited to a computer screen.
But when we come face to face with people and are confronted with their lives, an amazing things begins to happen.
Our focus begins to shift from our story to theirs.
This desire to understand other people’s stories feeds directly into the side of me that loves being a writer. As a writer, I get to walk through the stories of my characters. I get to slip inside their heads and figure out what they feel and fear and long for. Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy to do that in real life.
But have you ever sat in a vehicle in a pack of cars at a stoplight, or halted in the midst of a flow of people in a crowded mall or airport, and observed those around you?
Have you ever wondered about who they are and where they are going and what will happen when they get there?
Have you ever been staggered by the understanding that the person in the vehicle next to you thinks and feels and hopes and fears as deeply as you do? That they too bear the life-giving breath of God. That they were valued at the price of the life of God’s Son.
And then multiply that by all the other vehicles around you, and all the people in your city, your state, your country, the world?
Sometimes, the knowledge of the sheer numbers of unfolding lives and the stories they are living is overwhelming. Then, it almost seems easier not to dwell too much on it, because if we are confronted by it, I think it must change how we interact with others, or else we must pull the blinders more firmly around our eyes and sink ever more deeply into self-focus.
Thinking like a storyteller …
But when it comes to character development over the course of a story, storytellers know that it is often the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential act that can make the largest impact. It could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Or the legendary finger that plugged the hole in the dike. Small actions accomplishing either great good or great bad in a character’s life.
I think the same is often true in our lives. Recently, I came across a meme that set me thinking. If I could find the original, I would share it with you, but the gist of it focused on the idea that when people talk about jumping back in time, they are afraid that the littlest action could massively alter the course of the future. But few people think practically about how the converse of that idea is that the littlest actions now are affecting the course of the future.
It struck me most strongly when I started thinking about it on a interpersonal “story” level.
Imagine for a moment the dozens … hundreds … of other life stories happening alongside us every day – the teenage guy behind the check out counter or the girl in the drive through window. The business woman hustling past. The mom with three kids hanging on her legs. The homeless man with a sign on the street corner.
And ask yourself, how often do we think deeply about how our interactions, our words, or the things we do or don’t do or say, impact the stories of the people you simply brush shoulders with?
I don’t know about you, but I have seen the impact of words and actions — both large and small, heedless, and kind — in my own life a dozen times over. In fact, only a few months ago, someone went out of their way to remind me that my story—both my personal story and the stories that I am writing—matter. It was a simple thing to say, and yet coming at that moment and in that way, it had a profound impact on me.
This person had no idea that I was just coming out of a year of the worst self-doubt and writing-fear that I had ever experienced. But they took the opportunity to offer a small kindness, choosing to make their brush with my story a far-reaching one.
So, I will seize the opportunity to tell you the same thing now. You … your story … matters. It has value because you have inestimable value too.
This year, oh beautiful 2018, I hope to focus more upon the lives and the stories of the people I interact with and to be more intentional about the moments that I have to offer even a small kindness. This blog has always allowed me to share snippets of my story with you, but I don’t want it to be about me. I want to hear your stories too.
Will you share your stories with me?
I know that’s a broad invitation and comment boxes aren’t really geared toward whole life stories, but here are some ideas if you care to share:
- Something you have learned or discovered in the past year …
- Something you have accomplished or some way that you have had a chance to grow or change …
- A twist in your life that offered good when you didn’t expect it …
- An example of the Lord’s faithfulness in your life …
- A person with a story that surprised you …
- Something that has had an impact on you – an event, a conversation, a book, a movie, a song, or a Scripture reading …
Come, fellow wanderer, sit here a while and share a story beside the hearth.