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.

Developing an Empathy Quotient

old-books empathy quote

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

This is the quote that begins a marketing video developed for the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a video they call “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.”

It is a well done short film that shows us many different patients in the health care system, superimposing their stories in script beside their images. At heart it’s about seeing beyond the surface, understanding the story behind the person.

When we know someone’s story, we are more likely to have compassion, to see them as human, subject to all the joys and tragedies that being human brings. Empathy is part of what makes us human. 

So how do we take this idea of seeing beyond the surface and begin to increase the collective empathy/emotional quotient or EQ in this country?

How can we teach kids to step into the shoes of others?  How do we develop an understanding – an emotional connection to their circumstances. How can we teach adults how to enter the story of another – without judgment, without expectation, just listening and learning about the experience of another?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short video of a little girl in Iraq named Myriam. At the end of the video, the videographer thanks Myriam for her story, for her perspective. She responds by saying “And I thank you.” He asks her why, what has he done for her. “You have felt for me,” she says. “I had a lot of things to say and you let me say them.” These words from a child are remarkable. As young as she is, she recognizes the importance of story, of allowing people into our stories. She recognizes the importance of empathy and thanks the person who is interviewing her for his empathy.

In a short film about empathy versus sympathy Brene Brown talks about the research of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman researched empathy in different occupations and came up with these four characteristics of empathy.

1. Perspective – the ability to take the perspective of another, recognizing it as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgment.

3. Recognizing emotion in other people.

4. Ability to communicate that emotion with people.

Brene Brown goes on to say that empathy is a choice and that it is a vulnerable choice. To be willing to be empathetic we have to be vulnerable and find in ourselves something that connects us to the pain, the circumstances of another. That is not easy.

Perhaps that’s why we saw such a dearth of empathy on the deaths of two black men in recent months – those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Because no matter what you think or don’t think about the justice of each case, there is a place for deep empathy. Empathy with parents who have lost a child, with a woman who has lost a husband, with children who have lost their father. It seems many of us are unable to connect these tragedies with something inside ourselves, inside our souls.

Is it the same dearth of empathy that allows for rudeness and incivility in comments written at the end of online articles? The same lack of empathy that allows people to be unmoved when they see someone crying on the street? The same absence of empathy that has made bullying in and out of schools such a massive societal problem?

Or is it more complicated? Is it also because, as Leslie Jamison says, empathy is perched “precariously between gift and invasion?” Perhaps we struggle to voice empathy because we feel the person may not want us to ask questions, may not want us to connect at the heart level.

I think it’s partly about seeing people as less than as opposed to equal to. If we can see people as “less than” it is easy to dismiss them and dismiss their experience, dismiss their pain. If we acknowledge their humanity it becomes far harder to treat them poorly.

I don’t know what the answer is to developing an emotional quotient. I am a bleeding heart and can end up paralyzed by the pain of others and that’s not true empathy either. That’s being a trauma thief. But I think the process begins with watching, listening, and then being able to connect back to something in our own lives, remembering when we experienced something similar.

And then we ask. We ask them more about their story, more about their feelings, we learn the event behind the feeling. We think about how we might feel in the same situation. We let people tell their story, without judgment or fear of repercussions. Only then can we begin to see beyond our reactions into the heart of the person who hurts. Only then can we raise our emotional quotient and offer compassion and love.

What do you think? Do you think we have an empathy problem? What do you think would help? How do you teach your children empathy? 

I wish empathy was less ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’ & more of ‘believe the experiences of those who walk in shoes different from yours.’


*quote from Twitter

Saturday Travel and Travel Quote

Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday afternoon
Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday afternoon by Stanley Brown

“Harry kicked off hard from the ground. The cool night air rushed through his hair as the neat square gardens of Privet Drive fell away…..He felt as though his heart was going to explode with pleasure; he was flying again, flying away from Privet Drive as he’d been fantasizing about all summer, he was going home….For a few glorious moments, all his problems seemed to recede into nothing, insignificant in the vast, starry sky.” from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, book five in the Harry Potter series.

I travel today and like Harry Potter, I feel my heart will explode with pleasure. I leave for Turkey on an evening flight out of my favorite Terminal – Terminal E. I can hardly wait to hear the call to prayer, to drink tea while taking a ferry ride across the Bosphorus, to see the skyline of Istanbul. More than that, I will be with my brother and sister-in-law – two of my best friends.

But the trip is a bit more than all of this.

For some of the time I will be working with refugees at a health education center as well as a refugee camp with a small team of people. I am incredibly privileged to be going on this trip. My heart has been with the refugee situation for a long time, and to do something concrete is balm for the soul.

I have packed items like prenatal vitamins, wound care supplies, a portable machine to hear baby heart beats in pregnant moms, other medicines, and so much more into a large, soft-sided suitcase. This trip is way beyond me so I go with my heart humbled and open.

And I look forward to sharing pictures and stories on my return! One of the things my husband and I have often said to people as they return from a trip is “Tell your story! You need to tell your story!” So it is a gift to know that I have Communicating Across Boundaries as a venue for telling those stories. I will have limited access to email but Robynn, as the amazing writer/person who she is will be watching over the blog and Facebook page.

Here is what you can expect: 

  • Monday – a piece by Bronzi Bliss, Robynn’s lovely, youngest daughter, on being a TCK. You will see that the writing talent runs in the family!
  • Tuesday – my mom, Pauline Brown, writes a beautiful piece on friendship.
  • Wednesday – Robynn will continue with her excellent series on suffering.
  • Thursday – leaving this open – perhaps I’ll be able to post something from Turkey.
  • Friday – Fridays with Robynn continues
  • Saturday – the Travel Quotes will continue. I love them so keep them coming!
  • Sunday – the Sabbath rest so no blog post.
  • Monday – Pictures from Turkey
  • Wednesday – series on suffering continues
  • Thursday – I’ll be back to regular blogging. 

Your generosity in reading, commenting, and sharing is a gift. And to those of you who have purchased Between Worlds, thank you!

Speaking of Between Worldsif you buy the book for yourself or a friend during November all proceeds will go to refugees in Turkey. The refugee situation gets more difficult by the day and cold weather is coming. With that cold weather comes an increase in need for resources like blankets, heaters, tents and more. Along with that are the myriad of health needs so I’m thrilled to be able to send any royalties to a cause like this. It seems appropriate given the topic of the book and where my heart lies.

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging can be purchased here: 

Read reviews of Between Worlds here: 

So thank you! And have a great week. 

Interview with Tamara Lunardo – Editor of What a Woman is Worth

What a woman is worth picture

On April 1st the book What a Woman is Worth was released. Today I’m excited to introduce you to editor and writer Tamára Lunardo. In today’s post she talks about birthing the book, weaving her own story throughout and what she hopes readers will take away from What a Woman is Worth. Read more about Tamára at the end of the post. 


1.  How would you describe the book What a Woman is Worth? It’s a diverse and unified gathering of women’s voices to challenge and inspire people’s understanding of the value of women and girls.

2. How did you get the idea for the book? The responses I got from people who read my blog post “What’s a Girl Worth?” made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my hurts and questions of worth– so many others were struggling too. So I wanted to create something that would say to the world, “Women and girls need to hear a better story of themselves.” 

3. Your story is the common thread that weaves these diverse essays together–can you tell us a bit of what this was like for you? It really messed me up in terrible and necessary and beautiful ways. I thought I was going to just put together other people’s stories and that would be that– very sanitary. I’m a professional.

But the thing is, when you allow someone else’s story to get into your heart, you come face to face with your own– heart and story. So it delayed production for about a year because my story began to change as I acknowledged and interacted with it. And it was far from sanitary– it was messy, because that’s how hearts are, and our stories are our hearts. So now a lot of that developed story is woven into this book. And a lot of it will become a book of its own.

4. What do you hope women who read the book will learn or gain? I hope they will see that they’re not alone in their experiences, questions, or hurts and that who they are is intrinsically, unshakably valuable.

5. How about men– why might it be important for men to read WAWIW? The book has a female perspective on a universal issue because that’s where I come from. But I don’t think we have to have the same perspectives to learn from each other’s stories; in fact, we often learn more from those who see from a different vantage point.So this book is important for men, first, because the question of worth is one that every human is faced with and, second, because they have so much power in the world to make it better for everyone. I want them to see how women get such wrong messages about their worth, and I want men to step up and take part in sending better messages.

6. As a writer what’s next for you? I told my awesome agent, Rachelle, about the journey my life has taken throughout this book process– the frightening self-discovery, the painful divorce, the upending yet comforting of God’s good voice, the surprising, beautiful new life ahead. And she said that it’s a story I have to write because other people need to know what I’ve learned, which is that you only get to meet with God when you show up as your real self.

7. Any last thoughts about WAWIW to leave with readers? It’s terrifying to become vulnerable in front of the world. And I want you to know that the 30 women, plus me, who dared to shared their most personal stories could only have done it for a damn good reason. That reason is you.

We would love to hear from you! Leave any questions about the book or thoughts in the comments.

Want a copy of What a Woman is Worth

Order a paperback on Amazon: a Kindle version on Amazon:

Tamara thumbnailAbout the Author: Known for her disarming honesty and humor, Tamára is the editor of What a Woman Is Worth, a monthly contributor to A Deeper Story, an award-winning, syndicated blogger, an essayist appearing in several anthologies, and a copywriter for a large, child-focused anti-hunger organization.She holds a degree in English from the University of Florida, and her five kids, when they let her; she almost never holds her tongue.

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One-Dimensional Stories

No one is a Single Story

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete.*

I was introducing myself at a party when the woman I was speaking with interrupted me and said “Oh, I know you. You’re that woman who….” She went on to describe one event that she had heard about from one of my acquaintances — someone who I wouldn’t have even described as a friend.

I was stunned. 

This woman thought she knew me. The conversation was closed. She went on to greet other people who were beside me but our conversation was over. She knew what she wanted to know and that was the end.

A single story robs people of dignity.

I felt robbed — robbed of identity, robbed of meaning.  In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I felt robbed of dignity.

As angry as I was over that interaction, the unfairness of the interruption, the gross simplification of who I was based on one event, the fact that she didn’t know anything, really, about me — I realized on analysis that I have done the same.

I have acted as though I knew someone purely on hearsay. I have made assumptions based on stereotypes. I have dismissed based on unverified stories.

We do it all the time, don’t we? Look at nursing homes in the west, full of the elderly. The residents are reduced to a single time of their lives — old age. Reduced to wrinkled, toothless, scattered, and forgetful. We forget that their lives are rich with memory and meaning. That they were once teenagers with rebellion on their hearts and stars in their eyes. Twenty year olds who could change the world with a single action. Thirty year olds struggling under the weight of toddlers or singleness. Forty year olds learning that life doesn’t last forever. Fifty year olds with the first quiver and fear of old age. Sixty year olds where they looked in the mirror and, for the first time, didn’t recognize themselves. Seventy year olds facing a future without a spouse.

We see one dimension. A woman in a bleak room with clouded eyesight and a shared bathroom.

There is a problem with one-dimensional stories.

It’s a problem with the old, it’s a problem with the young, it’s a problem in the city, it’s a problem with the homeless.

And it’s also a problem with mission trips and short-term stints overseas, including blogging trips, and I’ll say it loud and clear – it’s a problem with North American journalists in Sochi. The one-dimensional stories consolidated into 140 characters and labeled #SochiProblems display a troubling ethnocentrism, failing to give valid critique and thoughtful response to a city and an entire country. One article states that Russians are calling this “”zloradstvo,” or “malicious glee.” All of Russia is reduced to a single story called #SochiProblems.

“As faves and retweets on @SochiProblems explode, it’s clear that the meme is based on cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance: The posts reflect actual issues that directly impact the quality of life of Russia’s 143 million people.”* 

It’s not the full picture. It’s a one-dimensional story. And one-dimensional stories are problematic.

I can picture these journalists cramming notes into small, moleskin journals, crafting their words – not to give honest and credible story and critique, but to gain a following, to see how many will pass retweet their one-dimensional views.

When we are visitors we must above all be honest. We must be clear that we are rookies in our understanding, babies in our assessments. Recently I read an interview with Adam Klein on a book he edited called The Gifts of the State.  It is a selection of stories penned by Afghan writers. At one point, in talking about the disconnect between the East and West, specifically Afghanistan and the west he says this:

“It was a dusty night in Kabul. I had lived in Muslim countries for 8 years. I saw a man on his bicycle with a scarf wrapped around his face. My first thought was “if this was the cover of Time magazine, I would think ‘terrorist'”; in fact, it was a sand storm.”

A single story says terrorist, a more complex look at circumstances shows a far more realistic picture.

So as I ponder this and shake my head over my own telling of stories and the often one-dimensional view I give to them, I think about the master of story telling, Jesus.

Because that’s what I love so much about Jesus – he saw people fully, he saw their outside actions, and he knew their inside thoughts. He, the ultimate story-teller told three-dimensional stories so that those who had ears to hear would hear.

And I pray that I will learn to be more like this Master Story-Teller, better understanding the complexity of the human experience, the human heart, telling stories with humility of heart and pen.

What about you? Have you been robbed of dignity because someone reduced your story to a single event? Have you done this to others? How do we learn to hear and tell stories honoring the complexity of the human experience? 

*from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story

Blogger’s note: The Onion did a great job a couple of weeks ago writing an article called “6-Day Visit to Rural Africa Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Pictures” —  Like most satire it exposes an unfortunate truth.


For a critical look at #SochiProblems see the article “#SochiProblems is More of an Embarrassment for America than it is for Russia.”

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Stories & Resilience

What's your story

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”* 

There is much written on stories, the power of stories and their ability to connect us and help us learn and grow. In fact, recent research has shown that children who know their family story are able to withstand more of life’s troubles than those that don’t. In a word, they are more ‘resilient’.

The research comes from two psychologists out of Emory University. They developed a tool called “Do You Know” that asked children to answer 20 questions about their families. They found that the more a child knew about their family the higher their self-esteem and their ability to withstand stress, to function normally. It turned out to be the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Because it is about being a part of a bigger story, being a part of something larger than we are.

I think about this, about resilience and the family narrative and look back on some of the chapters of the story. In my story there is the chapter where “Grandma K” lost Grandpa, he was only 50 years old. My mom was thousands of miles across the ocean and received the news by telegram. My cousin Leslie Ann was there, remembers his stomachache, how they all thought it was about something he ate. But it wasn’t – it was a heart attack. Grandma K weathered her grief and loss with grace, moving on to welcome many more grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren into the family narrative.

There is the chapter where my oldest brother almost drowned in a canal in Pakistan, a family friend rescuing him and my mother doing CPR – something she had just read about in a Reader’s Digest, praying all the while that he would live.

There is the chapter where my mom stood on the roof of our home in Ratodero on Christmas Eve, deeply discouraged, lonely and alone. Friends from a town 45 minutes away on a dusty road drove to surprise us, singing Christmas Carols to announce their arrival. Another chapter where my oldest brother, but 28 years old, lost his first wife to cancer, leaving behind both him and a beautiful 4-year old – Melanie Joy.

There are too many chapters to count – one goes all the way back to John Howland of the Mayflower.

And then there are the chapters that my nuclear family have written, are writing. Those chapters include Pakistan, Egypt, Istanbul, Essex, holidays, plane rides, arriving in the United States with all our earthly possessions in 26 suitcases and an Egyptian Siamese cat, pictures of Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in a heart-shaped frame on our mantle, tea-time on winter nights, curry and kusherie, lots of goodbyes, a wedding….and that does not include crazy traditions and inside jokes that are all a part of the story.

The narrative continues day after day, year after year where we are a part of both a bigger, extended family unit, and our own smaller unit. Woven through the years in both these narratives are the good times and the hard times, the richer times, the poorer times, the times of sick and the times of well. The tapestry is made up of joy, grief, anger, peace, strife, reconciliation and laughter….always there has been laughter. 

But for me this is about more than research, more than resilience from a family story. It’s about being part of a far bigger and far greater story – a story written by God himself. A story that tells of redemption and restoration, that gives me something greater than a family narrative, bigger than any earthly memories.

It’s this story, a story that tells of people willing to risk all because they believed, a story that gets bigger and better and truer each passing day, that gives me resilience, that tells me I am part of a narrative that is larger than all I am and all I have.

Because the story I’m in now, as good and as hard as it sometimes is, is just the beginning of that Great Story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” from The Last Battle by CS Lewis

*From “The Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler published in NY Times “This Life”.
Image credit: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

Guest Post – Witnesses to Our Lives

Lately I’ve been missing stories. Somehow my world has been too narrow, too tired, my ears too closed. It’s as though my eyesight needs healing and my ears need cleaning, for there are stories all around me.

Over a year and a half ago I posted on The Power of the Narrative. In that post I said this:

“I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a 500 word blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.”

The responses on that post were wonderful. They gave witness to the impact stories had on readers and why they were important.

It is one of those comments that I am posting today – a powerful reminder of why we need stories.

It’s a reminder I need today. 

Join Pari Ali – a long time reader of Communicating Across Boundaries in “Witnesses to Our Lives”

There is always a story. Each life has many short stories, a few plays, innumerable anecdotes and at least one full length novel. People always tell me their stories, even in the rest room. Maybe that is my big story. I have this face that invites confidences, a face that invites stories.

English: View from Kuwait Marina Mall

Some I will not forget – they are so unexpected. There I was in the restroom of one of Kuwait’s malls, Marina Mall and the attendant was a Sri Lankan woman. As I washed and dried my hands and brushed my hair, she told me about herself, how she was from a well to do family but had married a poor man of another religion against the wishes of her family and they had broken all relations with her. This man had later deserted her and here she was– forced by her circumstances to make her living cleaning out the toilets.

When I was admitted to the fever hospital for malaria, there was a lady in the next bed who worked as a maid for a Kuwaiti woman. She had just returned from India like me and also contracted malaria. She spoke Telegu and Arabic, my Arabic was not good and Telegu non-existent but that did not hinder her telling of her life story.

She had married the man she loved only to lose him three months later to a snake bite. A young widow, she then discovered she was pregnant. After delivering her son she had to leave her infant and come to Kuwait to earn a living. She began working for a Kuwaiti family but soon after the husband divorced his wife who also had a small baby. The two women became close and 11 years later she was still working for the same employer who took great care of her.

One day I was going home in an auto, it was raining very heavily, I saw a woman standing in the rain fully drenched waiting for a bus, I wondered what was her story? Rich or poor? Educated or illiterate? Town bred or country-bred? Each one of us has a story. All that is needed for them to come out is some compassion and interest.

Why do we tell our stories? I think because we need witnesses to our lives or perhaps a desire to leave our mark that says we were here, came, we felt, we suffered, we enjoyed, we loved, we gave, we received, but most of all we lived and in all that we did and all those we met we left our mark.

What about you? What are your stories? Do you believe we need witnesses to our lives? 

About the author: Pari Ali is a poet, a writer, and a photographer. She now lives in Kuwait with her husband and two daughters.