Story. I love that word. Someone is telling a story. Is anyone listening?
My friend Sally has three sons and she told me this story. One of her sons went away to Calcutta one November with a group from his secondary school, an exercise devised to help boys grow into men. To help open their hearts to how others live in this world, to enable them to grow in compassion for their fellow man.
He returned home in good form, but reticent. Told his family how mind-blowing the experience had been, described the elements of a place they had never been, told how the students had daily debriefing sessions at which they wrote their personal diaries and discussed everything that had happened. Reflection on experience is, after all, one of the great learning tools available to man. The family heard about the orphanage where the poorest of children were cared for. They closed their eyes and winced as he described the abject poverty of the railway children in Calcutta. But something was missing. His narrative was incomplete.
Sunday came. Like all of us, Sally’s family had their routines. Mass, a brisk walk in the woods, and dinner at home with the grandparents that evening. Conversation came around to the Calcutta “trip”. The young man was conversing in the way polite people do, not monopolizing, but answering questions, telling anecdotes, making sure to protect his listeners from the impact of deep personal insights he had had.
“Enough” came the voice of his Grandad, as he placed his knife and fork side by side on his dinner plate.
“Young man, would you ever do us all a favour and start at the beginning. You’re telling this story in bits and pieces and I’d love to hear you do it justice”
The young man checked with his parents, unaware of their needs. They had sent a boy away for a little over two weeks, and received a man home. They wanted to hear the story too. Every word of it.
He stood up, nervously pushed his chair against the dining table, and placed his hands on its back. He began to speak.
Time stood still. His parents, grandparents and brothers listened like their lives depended on it. You could hear a pin drop. At times, when his personal epiphany was indistinguishable from the suffering he was describing, he noticed the odd teardrop trickling down someone’s cheek.
“ Will I go on..? “ he asked, wanting not to upset anyone, but knowing that at this stage of his narrative, the story was telling itself. He was just an instrument.
All six listeners nodded their heads in spellbound assent.
He continued. The story began to flow again from his lips.
When he finished, the air in the room was golden. Everybody sat still in the capsule spun by the story.
Finally, his Grandad spoke.
“Thank you” he said.
“Thank you for the best present you could ever have given me”
“You have made an old man’s day”
And as Sally said, the telling of the story made everyone’s day. They understood their son, his experience, its integration into his life.
KLCK Bloggers network assigned random topics to bloggers at its meeting last Monday. I was asked to write a post using the words ‘story’ and ‘lips’. This one came to mind as I’ve always been moved by how the listener has the power to let the story teller tell their tale, and by so doing, to bring it and the narrator to life.
We all have two ears and one mouth.