There is a concept that some in the field of neuroscience call “increased integration.” Simply put, it’s the idea that when people share their personal stories with another, both people see changes in their brain circuitry. In fact, according to psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel, when someone tells his or her story and is truly heard and understood, real change happens. They feel a greater sense of emotional and relational connection, decreased anxiety, and greater awareness of and compassion for others’ suffering.
Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said it this way: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The traction that the #metoo campaign has gained has been phenomenal. As we see woman after woman come forward with reports of harassment and assault from some in American leadership today, the discussion pulls two ends of the same cord and lands at varying points in the middle. For some, the question remains, “Who should we believe?” For others, the question is, “How can we help?” Both are helpful and both must be thoughtfully considered.
My past includes sexual assault. To this day, I wish this chapter weren’t part of my story. The shame has passed, but the memories linger. Over and over, I’ve sought to take out my proverbial eraser and omit the entire scene, and many following. And for many years, no one knew this chapter even existed. Until I shared it and everything changed.
When I look at the #metoo phenomenon, I’m admittedly perplexed. Pandora’s Box has been opened and stories spill out. Over social media, in news outlets, in 140-character tweets.
And I come back to one question that pesters me at night: How does our discipleship speak into the personal stories of pain? If it’s true that as we share our stories and they are heard by others, both parties are changed towards more compassion and kindness and peace, then what should our response be?
The importance of stories isn’t new. Go all the way back to Genesis and read stories of people who stumbled as they faithfully walked with God. Go to the New Testament to discover that Jesus himself was the master storyteller, etching life truths onto his listener’s brains through parables. “Once upon a time…” is so popular that most people’s ears perk up immediately as those words are uttered. We study epic stories in school—The Odyssey, Don Quixote, War and Peace, Moby Dick, the list goes on. The power of story is so tempting that many fall into the hands of gossip and slander as a result of what they’ve heard.
And no matter who it comes from, every story matters.
I’ve been in the presence of people who have shared their deepest hurt for the first time. I’ve watched as tears cascaded down their faces knowing that their “untold story” is no longer theirs alone. They have moved from the western “I” into the biblical “we.”
This is how it should be.
So what do we do with the Pandora Box spillage in tweets and characters online?
Simply put, we reimagine what it means to be disciples of Christ who seek the good and salvation and healing of all. Science is telling us that as we listen to others’ stories and respond appropriately, we are changed. This may be new to science, but it has been etched into the minds of believers for millennia.
“Bear one another’s burdens.” This is similar to what psychiatrist and author Dr. Curt Thompson calls “the process of being known.” It’s more than listening. It’s empathizing and being present. It’s seeking to cover the wounds that too many carry.
Stopping at the Story
#MeToo is a cry both to be known and to be known collectively. We are better together than we are apart. Those of us who have carried silent pain know what it’s like to finally be heard. To be heard requires time and patience. It means not scooching past the wound to get to the justice. It’s lament in all it’s beauty. Entering another’s pain long enough to actually do good. We offer hope before we move on to justice.
Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, who have done much research on the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the importance of reconciliation in all things, explained it this way:
Sabbath in a broken world is something like [this]—knowing in the midst of action when it is time to be still…even as the whole world is falling apart, spending time with the God we love. When the One we love whispers to us, “All will be well,” it is more than wishful thinking. It is the fundamental truth of the universe.
Again, I come back to this pestering question: How does our discipleship speak into the personal stories of pain? When we are unable or unwilling to lament alongside those who are wounded, we are ineffective in our discipleship.
Unless we allow our hearts to be truly moved by another, King Solomon’s “there is nothing new under the sun” will continue to persist. News reports of woman after woman saying “#metoo” will continue and we will get mad, posting on social media our outrage. Until it all settles down and we move on. Until the next time it happens and we are pushed to and fro in the wind, crying for justice, but with no foundation upon which to actually impact change.
Dr. Seuss was a literary genius and his words concluding The Lorax ring in our ears: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
The question is, What does caring mean to you as you hear stories of pain? How are you doing as a disciple of Christ in a world crying out to be heard and healed?
Questions to consider:
- When someone is sharing something personal, how engaged am I in what he or she is saying?
- When someone just shared something difficult, what is my response?
- When someone shared something personal with me, how do I follow up with him or her?
- Am I authentic and real in the way I present myself to others?
- Do I seek to make myself look better than I really am?