Stories we tell strangers

We have these tidy, polished narratives we tell. We tell them to ourselves to rationalize, to justify, to remind us of why we’re here, why we’re enduring. We tell them to others to convince them of our investment, our devotion, our clarity of mind. We file down and polish away the imperfections that don’t serve whatever purpose we’re working toward now. They’re the stories we tell, the stories we’re told to tell, even when our minds are anything but clear, certain, committed.

Then there are the other stories. They’re messy, honest. They’re the stories of living, failing, getting lost, finding our way, loving, hurting, giving our all to discover it’s not enough. They’re the experiences we bury and try to ignore. They’re the secrets we whisper into the dark.

But sometimes we need something more than the darkness can offer. So we tell these stories to strangers.

And there are places for us to share. Basements and rooms of anonymous souls. Seats at the bar or on the train by someone many orbits outside our professional and personal lives. Stages before crowds assembled to hear “human” stories but where we can’t (or don’t have to) focus on a single face. The ether of the internet where we can put forth words without interruption… and then either watch the response or close the window and not revisit it again.

This week, I listened as a panel of 4 accomplished women shared stories of their mistakes and failings with a room of 100+ people. Asked what it was like to share such stories, one of them (Renee Erickson) said it was “terrifying.” Sharing stories of when we failed, or think we failed, are indeed frightening. What if no one gets it? What if I really am the screw-up I imagine myself to be? What if… what if… It’s a little easier with some cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. I imagine it must be a bit easier when you have some accomplishments and accolades between you and that time of your life.

Responding to the same question, another woman (Trish Millines Dziko) said, “Telling a room that is 99.9% strangers is… freeing.” And that is also true. We need someone to hear (or read), to bear witness. We need someone to know our experience of that moment. Perhaps we just need some reaction, any reaction, from someone who’s not entangled in our story.

These stories can lend authenticity to the people we are—or the personas we present—in the world.

Most of all, I think we need others to know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we hope to find that we are not alone.

I can’t help but think what beauty and wonder we might achieve if we could tell these stories more freely to friends and colleagues, to those who are now or one day might be part of our circles.

But for now, and for some time to come, these are stories we save for strangers.

——

Marquita Qualls (@DrQualls) recently invited me to have a STEMulating Conversation, and at the end, we touched on the value and rationale of sharing personal stories. You can listen to a bit of my story here: https://overcast.fm/+JafmmT5ZI/37:56

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