Learning Our Enemy’s Stories

Everyone has a story

“An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously.”*


A few years ago I had a long conversation with a physician. The physician was ethnically Indian, but had moved to the United States, become a citizen, and had built up a primary care practice in a suburb of Boston. She came up to me after I had given a talk on the importance of culture and health care.

She relayed the story of some Brazilian patients that came to her practice. “I didn’t like them” she said. They were noisy, always had a lot of questions, and came to appointments with lots of family members. She would dread it when she looked at her daily schedule and saw that one of these patients was coming. She just knew that visits from these patients would put her behind schedule and cause chaos in her brain and her office.

Then one day, she unexpectedly had a bit more time. She stepped away from her computer and stethoscope and into the realm of human dialogue with a Brazilian woman. This wasn’t the first time she had cared for this patient, but it was the first time that she had asked her about more than her symptoms. She ended up in a conversation about family, about Brazil, and about how the woman came to the United States. Instead of the appointment ending in a sigh of relief that it was over, she found herself reluctant to say goodbye. The next time the patient came, the doctor did the same thing. She ended up learning more of the woman’s story, and then the story of her family. She stopped seeing these patients as a bother, and began seeing them for who they were and the stories they carried.

It wasn’t long before the entire community had learned that this doctor was different. This doctor cared. This doctor liked them. Go to this doctor, they said to each other. She’ll take good care of you.

Our world faces a massive empathy problem, an inability to listen to, much less like, those who see the world differently. The story of this doctor shows that when we take a step back and really listen, really get to know someone, our attitudes can change. It is not the only story like this one. In fact, there are many more that tell of how perceptions and feelings toward people changed, once they heard the story behind the person.

A recent article in the Plough quarterly called Meet a True Story talks about the resurgence in storytelling in the United States. The article begins with these profoundly true words: “Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection”

The article goes on to talk about a couple of different storytelling programs that serve to help build empathy. One of these is a program that helps people inhabit another person’s story. The idea is simple: You listen to another person’s story – not with the intent to respond to it, but with the intent to retell it as your own story in first person pronoun. It changes the dialogue completely because in order to do this you have to live in the story of another; often another who you don’t agree with or like.

Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can….get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.

There is a lot of fear in our world. I see and hear the fear every day. It is fear of the other, it is fear that “our way of life”(whatever that may mean) is going, and it is fear that the views of others may hurt our tightly held beliefs.

In the case of the doctor that I relayed above, her life and her practice became richer as a result of her willingness to move from prejudice to really getting to know someone. In really listening to her patient, she began to empathize. When she stopped seeing her Brazilian patients for the chaos she felt they caused, and instead entered into their stories, her attitudes and behavior toward them changed. The last I heard, she had decided to break down a wall in her practice to make more room for family members to come to appointments. She is beloved and trusted in the Brazilian community.

This can be us. If we take a step forward to listening to the story of another, we can learn and grow in respect and love for those who are different from us. We can begin to love the respect the one who is other and love the one who we used to fear. People are more than the views they hold. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and co-workers.

As the quote above says, there are three ingredients. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more, and humble enough to admit when we might have been wrong. The ingredients are simple, but the work is hard. Can we do it?

If we want to change the current climate, I don’t think we have a choice. 


*From Plough Quarterly “Meet a True Story” – I highly recommend this article. It is excellent and goes much more in depth on what it means to hear and inhabit the story of another.

#OnlytheGood – Christmas 2017

It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.

I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.

We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.

In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.

The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.

Starlight shines, the night is still
Shepherds watch from a hill
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Perfect child gently waits
A mother bends to kiss God’s face
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing
Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace
Loves come down for you and me
Heaven’s gift, the holy spark
To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door
Came the hope we’ve waited for
The world was changed forevermore
When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born*

A baby born on a Pakistan International Airlines Flight! 

On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!


My friend Rachel has a book deal! She will be writing the story of Annalena Tonelli!

Plough Nabs Bio of ‘Somalia’s Mother Teresa’

“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”


New York Today: Alone in an Empty City

This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.

“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’

Nowhere.

At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.

But then we become the lucky ones.

We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”

Quote from my friend Jo: 

I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.

“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”


Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.


And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.

With love to all of you,

Marilyn ♥️

Song by Bernie Herms / Mark Schultz / Mark Mitchell Schultz / Stephanie Lewis When Love Was Born lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc<<<<<<<<<<
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Christmas on Beacon Hill

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Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

Good Stories Behind Bad Headlines

The headlines chase us down, taunting us with their urgency, telling us to how to respond. They never stop. We may sleep, but the headlines don’t. 

And they don’t want us to – not really. The person who is first to share or tweet a story gets the prize.

Behind the bad headlines are some poignant stories of reconciliation and redemption. They don’t get attention, but they should. Condemnation is newsworthy. Redemption is not. Miscommunication is newsworthy. Communicating across boundaries and finding a point of connection is not. Hate is newsworthy. Love is not.

Today I want to remind us of three good stories that are pushed under bad headlines. They are not all recent, but they are newsworthy all the same. 

The first comes from a picture that I first saw on social media. In her own words, a woman describes how a stranger, a police officer, gave her a moment of hope. I’ve included the picture here, because it’s best in her words.

story of hope

The second story comes from a few years ago when Chick-fil-A dominated the headlines. People were being urged to boycott the company because the chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, had made some public comments against same sex marriage. For a week, this fed the news. Anger and hatred on both sides erupted. Chick-fil-a was branded, forever it seemed. What people don’t know is what happened later.

While the U.S. was embroiled in the controversy, Dan Cathy telephoned the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the group that launched a multi-million dollar campaign against Chick-fil-A, Shane Windmeyer. This was the first of what would be many phone calls and meetings between these two followed by other executives of Chick-fil-A. It resulted in an unlikely, but amazing, friendship between Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer. In Windmeyer’s own words:

“Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. Even when I continued to directly question his public actions and the funding decisions, Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective. He and I were committed to a better understanding of one another. Our mutual hope was to find common ground if possible, and to build respect no matter what. We learned about each other as people with opposing views, not as opposing people…….I will not change my views, and Dan will likely not change his, but we can continue to listen, learn and appreciate “the blessing of growth” that happens when we know each other better. I hope that our nation’s political leaders and campus leaders might do the same.”

It is an amazing story of friendship, forged despite deep differences in beliefs. It’s a story of hope behind a headline that breeded controversy across social media.

The third story comes a Christian college, and headlines that painted the college as Islamophobic. The headlines were based on an incident where a professor at the college donned hijab to identify with Muslims. The administration of the college reacted and the professor and Wheaton College “parted ways.” I have my own opinion of this college professor deciding to don a hijab, but that’s not what this article is about. The headlines of the Chicago Tribune are loud and clear: Wheaton College demonstrators launch fast to spotlight Islamophobia. 

The story behind the scenes looks quite different. Months before the incident, Wheaton College students and professors were meeting with Muslim leaders in the area. They were forming friendships and having dialogue with Muslims, seeking to better understand each other.

A Wheaton professor writes an outstanding article about this in the magazine First Things:

“I will admit to losing hope that the media can hear any of this. My colleague Noah Toly and I related nearly all of these facts to a reporter who, to our absolute bafflement, could still not shake the assumption that we were “Islamophobic.” But it really doesn’t matter if we’re misunderstood. We will keep engaging our Muslim neighbors, because we’re not just meeting with them in order to be recognized for doing so. We’re doing so because we believe in the God who does not just have love—but in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—he is love. We believe one person of that Trinity, Jesus, took on human flesh, was crucified and rose from the dead. And in the mystery of his risen life he is with those who are maligned and marginalized and misunderstood—and so we see our Lord Jesus in the faces of our Muslim neighbors. To hate you, therefore, would be to hate him.”

So, what do these three stories tell me? What should they tell all of us?

Perhaps we need to step back before we react. Perhaps we need to give the headlines some time, so that other stories can emerge. Stories that defy the headlines and give us some hope. 

 

Four Types of Stories

 

At a workshop I attended last week, we talked about story as it pertains to race. Through a framework developed at Barnard College, we learned about four types of stories and how knowing and hearing these stories can help expand our understanding of culture, ethnicity, and race.

As we went through the exercise, the types and explanations of these stories were a catalyst to important conversations happening in the room.

Because I identify as an adult third culture kid, I thought about this framework through that lens. How can this be adapted to help those of us who are third culture kids? How can we use the material to better understand ourselves and others? How can this help us to relate well with the world around us?

To answer those questions, I decided to do this blog post and focus on these types of stories and how they translate into the TCK world. Disclaimer – these four stories are critically important in the race conversation, and this piece is not to dismiss that, but rather to see the framework as something that works in other situations.

Stock Stories: These are the stories that are most common, the ones we hear regularly, whether or not they are true. These stock stories for TCKs generally fall into two categories: The amazing TCK and the maladjusted TCK. The amazing TCK is the story that says life was amazing, we got to travel, learn different languages and cultures, have a broad view of the world, etc. The maladjusted TCK is the story that says we’ll never really fit into our home countries and cultures, we have feelings of loss and grief that are not resolved, we will forever miss the worlds where we were raised. There are elements of truth in both those stories. The problem is that neither of them make room for nuance and complexity. As Chimamanda Adiche says so well: There is a danger of a single story. No one is a single story. 

Concealed Stories: These are the stories that remain hidden. They may be sad or beautiful, they may tell a story of connection or disconnect; but they remain in the shadows. These stories challenge stock stories because they give a broader view, another perspective. They increase the complexity of the TCK. These stories are the ones that give family history and dynamics, that give the background to some of the experiences that the TCK has had. An example could be the story of evacuation, when within a couple of days, the TCK lost everything that they knew because of a war in their adopted country. The TCK keeps it hidden — after all, they were safe, they didn’t have to experience the horror of war like their national friends. But it’s a concealed story that, once shared, reveals many things about resilience, grief, and belonging. Sometimes the concealed story is the one that makes us third culture kids. The story about living in multiple places and multiple cultures – hidden because it’s easier to say “I’m from Kansas.”

Resistance Stories: These are the stories that challenge the status quo. These stories say “Don’t put me in a box that I can’t escape.” They challenge parents, teachers, and decision makers on the stereotypes that can block growth. These are the stories that say “I’ll use my sense of being ‘other’ to help me be more empathetic to the marginalized, the outcast.” “I won’t let stereotypes define me – I’ll fight them.” The resistance story fights for the research that has validated the TCK experience, and defends terminology when others are critical.

Counter Stories: These are new stories, stories that build on resistance stories and counter the stock stories. These are the stories that say “I can use my ‘best of’ skills and do well wherever I live.” These are the stories where we take our background, our past, and use it to find a niche that works for us as adult third culture kids. These are the stories that we write, not the ones written for us. Stories that combine both stock stories to craft a stronger, more honest picture of who you are as an individual and as part of a larger tribe of TCKs. It could be the story that says “Yes I grieve, but I also love what I experienced, I love that I am capable of complexity, capable of understanding multiple world views.”

In all of this, the strongest message to me is to own our story, to walk inside that story and not let others write it for us. Brene Brown says that “You either walk inside your story and own it, or stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” Understanding these types of stories can help us do just that.

As you read this, what do you think? Where do you see these types of stories working in your community? If you are a TCK, what are the stories you could tell that fit into these categories? Join the conversation! 

Why Stories Matter

typewriter quote

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
― Joan Didion

As a public health nurse, I live in a world of quantitative data and quantifiable results. Two times a year we must demonstrate to funding sources that our preventive health program works. We need to show that the money we spend translates into more women getting mammograms and pap tests, to more women and men getting colonoscopies. If the numbers don’t show it, it isn’t working.

But I’m a story-teller. I’m a person of stories living in a world of numbers. A person where time is of no importance while I listen or watch a story being told. I am a story-teller and lover of stories that works in a world that gives money to the efficient, that weighs and measures importance based on data driven by numbers.

Numbers mean little to me. Tell me a thousand have died and I will feel sad; tell me the story of one of those who died, tell me about the mother that hugged her child goodbye that morning only to find out by noon that she would never feel the warmth of that child’s body again and I will weep. Tell me the story of one little boy, whose body washed up on the shore of the sea, and I will act. The story helps me make sense of the numbers; the story makes the numbers real.

Stories move the heart to act. Stories cut across cultural divides. Stories connect us to each other. Stories help us to understand ourselves and others better. There’s a reason that Jesus told stories. He could talk all day long to hard-hearted humans and give them commandments and rules, but they would have dismissed him and gone on their way. Instead, he gave them stories. Stories of people like they were, stories that used the context of Middle Eastern village life, stories of shepherds and fields and Samaritans and Pharisees. And in the stories, they saw themselves. 

So keep on telling stories – yours and those of others. And keep on listening to the stories of others – Because when we stop telling stories, we will stop being human. 

“Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”*

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.*

*[Source: Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality]

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.