The Voice of the Beholder (Allowing other voices to help shape our personal narratives)

“Who does the telling shapes the story. Recall the classic Japanese movie, Roshamon and the principle it demonstrates. A man is murdered and a woman is raped, and four people tell what happened. Each person’s version is “true”, yet each version tells a different story. It matters who does the telling.”                –Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., from Crossing to Avalon

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I went to a cross country meet. I went to support my friend, Ryan, who coaches the team at the university where I used to work. I was happy to cheer for the college’s current student-athletes and a couple of faculty friends who were running. However, at this annual event there is always an alumni contingent running – and I was mostly there for them.

Chatting with friends and former colleagues, I got two different versions of how things are going at the university these days – either everything is great or the whole place is about to implode. In other words, when it comes to this particular institution’s story, it clearly matters who is doing the telling.

During the women’s race, which was first, I stood with the husbands and children of my former students (some of the husbands were also alums). We talked about their jobs and family lives; I listened as they teased one another and revived old team jokes. But when the women appeared in that last stretch to the finish line, all attention became focused immediately on finding and cheering for those we knew. One by one, the women crossed the finish line, and their families went to congratulate them on competing and completing the race. Eventually, most of the runners had finished; the stragglers, separated by wide margins, were clearly pushing their limits to keep running.

The other spectators had mostly drifted off to congratulate the finishers, but I remained with one husband and his happy, smiling baby girl, waiting for the last alumna runner to come into view.

I had watched on Facebook as former athletes replied to the race event page, good-naturedly goading one another into signing up. Or self-deprecatingly agreeing to run, with apologies for being out of shape or unprepared. I had seen the post when this young mother had capitulated and added her name to list of those running. From her ambivalent “What the heck, I’m in,” I knew she was not at all certain it was a good idea. But she showed up. And she ran.

When she eventually came into sight on the long, straight stretch to the finish line, this is what I saw: a woman pushing herself to finish what she started, even though every breath and every step hurt. She was red-faced, sweat-drenched and yes, I could still see the signs that she’d given birth a few months ago. I thought she was amazing. Awe-inspiring, in fact. When she came up to us, I congratulated her. I told her she’d done a fantastic job, that I was impressed – every word of which was true.

Her first words were, “I shouldn’t have done this.”

We enter many events in our lives with trepidation, with fear. We feel unsure of ourselves; sometimes we’re conflicted about whether we’re doing the right thing. We feel ourselves stumble, we’re aware of every mistake or misstep. And when we share the story of those moments, we are focused on the many ways we fell short. How we just missed the mark. But for those who witnessed us at these times, during these difficult events in our lives, the version we tell may sound completely foreign.

In observing us, others see the ways we have overcome the things that hold us (and often them) back. They see our strengths, our gifts set loose to grace the world around us. They are able to respond to these things from a place of pure appreciation, pure celebration, in a way we may never be free to when sharing the story ourselves.

It may well be true that my young friend “shouldn’t” have run that day. But the beauty I saw in her effort, determination, follow-through and sheer grit was also completely true. If she can hear that truth, and hold the tension between her version and mine as both/and, rather than dismissing one as a fiction, she might learn something about herself that would be good for her to know. For one, that she can be inspiring to others without being perfect.

Over the years, I’ve written numerous times about voice – learning to use mine, the ways our culture tries to silence our voices (especially if we are women, people of color, poor). I’ve said it is vitally important that we honor our own voices. I stand by all of that. But have you ever noticed that, in our own version of events, we often tell the story from the perspective of our insecurities? Shaded by self questioning instead of celebration? So I want to argue that there is also a time for letting someone else tell our story. And in listening to that story, allow that their version of events may hold truths about us that are worth hearing.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe it is vitally important that we be allowed to shape our own stories, to craft a personal narrative that tells our own deeply complex, inevitably flawed, yet also beautiful and grace-filled truths to ourselves – and then shares them with the world. We can sometimes get stuck in the negative narratives we tell ourselves about who we are, about the life experiences that shaped us and, in so doing, wounded us. We can get stuck in a version of our story that keeps us in that wounded state. Moving from a crippling narrative into an empowering one is incredibly hard. It is also paradoxically simple (not easy). Simply, we craft a different narrative. One that works for us by allowing that our presence and our giftedness are real and substantive. And they contribute value to our world, despite lacking perfection. Despite being messy or sometimes difficult to speak and hear.

In closing, I’d like to share another story – the fact that it also is a story about running is purely coincidental. In July, my friend Molly ran her first 5k. Afterwards, she told me it was hard but she was really glad she had done it, and that her daughter, Kate, was present to see it. Molly hoped that Kate would take some important lessons from this: that women can take on the challenge to be physically strong; that it is a good thing to push yourself beyond what you thought you could do; that it is important to finish, even when it is difficult.

When I saw Kate for the first time after the race, she ran over for me to pick her up and said, “Jen, did you know mom and Aunt Alissa ran in a race in Door County?”

“Really?!”, I asked.

“Yes! And guess what, Jen!,” Kate crowed. “Mom won!”

My eyes met Molly’s over Kate’s head. Both of us were smiling, though Molly’s smile was also a bit of a cringe. I know she wanted to correct Kate’s impression, tell her that she hadn’t won the race. But I silently willed her not to. Kate was at the race, after all, and had seen everything she needed to see. Her four-year-old mind came to exactly the right conclusion – her mom was a winner. And Molly, like most mothers battling their parenting demons, needed to hear that. I hope she allows Kate’s version to inform the story she tells herself.

Yes, it matters who does the telling. But if, when crafting your story of yourself, your personal narrative, you find yourself stuck on the things that are wrong, flawed or wounded perhaps you can look to the people who love and admire you to contribute some positive perspective without dismissing them. Yes, their vision of you may be biased for the good, but yours is likely biased toward the negative. Together, they may flesh out a more realistic version of you! And I promise you – though the story will be different, it will still be true.

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