“It’s not always enough to be brave, I realized years later. You have to be brave and contribute something positive, too. Brave on its own is just a party trick.” (B.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories)
It won’t come as a surprise to read that I love personal stories. I love that people share their stories and nothing will change my mind about the importance of this.
Can you sense there’s a ‘but’ coming?
We do not have to focus on the crap we’ve been through in order to feel we’ve earned the right to share our story.
I was (almost) speechless earlier this week when my friend said that she didn’t feel she could relate to the young people she’s working with because she hadn’t had to deal with the things they’re going through.
She’s a support staff member at an inner-city school with a high percentage of students who speak English as a second language and live in what is classed by some as ‘deprived’ areas but where she has seen the sort of community spirit many of us can only dream of. She asked me to speak at the school but not in my usual author-visit-type-way, she wanted me to talk about resilience and as she put it, ‘reach them in a way that I can’t.’
I have not studied at an inner-city school. My secondary school was in Bath where the biggest challenge most of us faced on a daily basis was walking past the neighbouring school’s students who called us ‘turds’ because our uniform was brown and gold.
English is not my second language. I don’t have a second language because GCSE French doesn’t count. I couldn’t even begin to imagine trying to live in another country, learn the language and not only be able to function in that country but be educated within that country too.
I spent my secondary school years living on the outskirts of Bath. I don’t have experience of deprivation or community spirit. I don’t count the gaggle of curtain twitchers as being community spirited at all.
I went to the school, I shared my story and talked about resilience in the only way I know how. My friend does exactly the same thing every single day and the students adore her. Part of the session included talking about what we admire in other people. We created the opportunity to share snippets our own stories and also share what inspired us about other people’s stories.
The day before this school visit, I was speaking to a group of adults. I facilitated the same exercise. In a group of nine women, the discussion was predominantly negative. Every woman in that room had experienced trauma. Every woman focused on that experience as their ‘story’. When one woman was talking about her experience, another chipped in and actually said the words ‘oh, at least you were only with him for three years, I had fifteen years of it and it was much worse, if you want ‘inspiration’ then there’s much worse out there than what you’ve been through.’ While that comment did allow me to step in and work on reframing our narratives, it was an insight into the world we live in. Is that really the message we’re receiving? If we haven’t been through ‘enough’ then our stories aren’t valid? We’re seeing a huge increase in people sharing their stories and experiences in books, blogs, videos and every other medium that’s available to us. We can see what humans are forced to endure on a daily basis in this world of 24/7 information sharing. How has that become something we’re turning into a competition? We all have a story. We don’t have to have had ‘the worst’ experience in order to feel the need to share it. We certainly don’t need to undermine someone else’s story to validate our own.
Not one of these young people turned their experience into a competition. Not one had a trauma-off.
There were 34 young people in that room. Their stories blew my mind but what impressed me the most was the fact that everyone was heard. As one person spoke, there was silence from everyone else. As we went around the room sharing the ways in which we have been inspired by the stories of the other group members, every single person was named as having inspired another.
My friend was named a number of times. She told her story. She shared that she had enjoyed what could be considered a privileged upbringing. Her parents showered her with love and she’s thankful every day that they’re still around to see her children, their grandchildren, grow up. She shared that she married her childhood sweetheart and they’re happy. She told us that she loves her job and couldn’t imagine working with more inspirational young people. She cried. I cried. The young people did not cry!
Not one of those young people said ‘well, aren’t you lucky’ or words to that effect, which is what she had been afraid of.
One of the young men stood up and towered over us both. He said, ‘you know what, you need to write a book. All we get, day in day out, is the shit stuff. I love that you’re happy. If I just think about how much my family loves me, I’m fucking lucky too. I’m not saying I’d read your book, but nobody believes you can just be happy anymore.’
THAT is why YOUR STORY COUNTS. We find inspiration in so many different places. Only you can share your story and who knows who you’ll inspire along the way.