Tell me your story. Don’t retell me what someone else has said about you, has told you about yourself, tell me what you know about you, what you’ve seen and done, not someone else’s interpretation of it.
We hear a lot about ourselves from the outside world. Media shows us representations of groups we belong to. We overhear and participate in conversations where individuals we know (teachers, bosses, friends, family) make claims about groups we belong to, or even about us specifically. The world is a constant fragmented mirror reflecting back disjointed images of who we are. Our jobs then become to fit those fragments together, to sort the actual reflections from the from exaggerated, the exaggerated from the plain inaccurate. We end up with a constantly evolving narrative perception of ourselves gleaned from the people bobbing and yapping in the concentric circles radiating out around us.
My mom said this about me. My brother said that about me. My friend said this about me. I overheard my neighbor say that about me. My teacher said this about the class; I belong to the class. My minister said this about the congregation; I belong to the congregation. The police sergeant said that about local farmers; I’m a local farmer. The mayor said that about the city; I live in the city. The president said this about Costa Ricans; I’m a Costa Rican. The ranchero says that about single men; I’m a single man. The show said that about Latin Americans; I’m a Latin Americans. The movie said this about people who live in the campo; I live in the campo.
The emerging narrative gleaned from all those external evaluations that people apply to themselves- often without realizing they’re doing the synthesizing and applying- is something people then regurgitate. If someone walks up and asks this hypothetical Costa Rican coffee farmer about himself, there’s a good chance he’ll give some piece of a summary he’s amassed from all those piecemeal reflections from varying proximities (immediate: mom; distant: mass media).
This regurgitation can often become collective. All these outside sources say things about Costa Rican farmers, I’ve heard other Costa Ricans repeat some of them about themselves, and because I’m also a Costa Rican, they must apply to me as well. Hence comes the collective regurgitation of narratives constructed by someone else- by someone elses- and therefore really by no one at all.
Which makes them empty generalizations that don’t actually apply to any member of the group, even when members of the group readily apply them to themselves.
We have so many opportunities to be unwittingly collecting data on what other sources- both informed and ignorant- are saying about us, that we rarely have an opportunity to take a minute to think what we actually know about ourselves.
When I ask people to tell me their stories, I’m asking them to do something apart from what they normally do (regurgitate some piece of a collective narrative in order to consider their own experiences); I’m asking me to tell me what they’ve actually done, seen, felt, and experienced, even if it doesn’t comply with some fractured, floating narrative of best fit.
I’m asking people to go outside (inside? Next door to? Underneath? Beyond?) the collectively regurgitated narrative of “this is my family’s land; I learned to farm coffee from my father, and now that’s what I do. Everything I have I have because of coffee,” and tell me the specifics of their individual lives.
And a lot of people don’t know how to do it. Because they’ve never done it before. They’ve also never seen or heard anyone do it. Lots of people don’t realize the stories they have to tell, don’t realize that they are brimming with unique experiences because they’ve spent so long finding the parts of their lives that do fit with the collectively regurgitated mass narratives of the groups they belong to.
The exceptions make us human; they’re what make us individuals who have to face coincidence, luck, misfortune, challenge, and opportunity. Some people are more inclined to tell stories than others, but telling stories about what has made and is making us who we are is never simple, it is never easy, and it is always something we can (and should) keep learning how to do.