I recently received a copy of This I Believe, a printed collection of essays from the famous radio show series of the same name. Most nights I read a few of the 2-3 page essays, slowly making my way through the volume. A different author composed each essay—some are famous people like Albert Einstein, and some are more ordinary people like you and I. All of them respond to the deceptively simple question, “What do you believe?”
What would I write in my This I Believe composition? This question confronts me every time I close the book before falling asleep in bed. And I have awoken in the middle of the night with answers to this question. When they strike me, I roll over and squint my eyes through the darkness to scribble a few words on the inside cover of my book before the words leave me.
“I believe your story.” This is the first statement of the short list that has formed there.
I’ve been returning to it over and over again since it hit the page. And this phrase is about what I believe as much as it is about the significance of the entire This I Believe project itself. I believe that beliefs—the deepest truths and convictions of people’s lives—they don’t just appear out of thin air. On the contrary, I believe we all have stories—reasons, events, influential encounters, messy narratives—upon which the foundational truths of our lives are built. If we ask people to recount the story of the “why” behind the “what” of their beliefs, and if we take them seriously when they do, there are profound consequences.
For one thing, I have found that it is much more difficult to patronize, or oversimplify, or quickly dismiss someone’s beliefs once they have situated those beliefs within an authentic narrative of their lives. Even when I really disagree with someone’s convictions, I am more reasonable in my disagreement when we have discussed our conflicting views within the context of our experiences. I am less likely to mistreat an adversary once I have realized that his or her beliefs are rooted in assertions derived from existentially significant experiences, just like mine. The “why’s” behind people’s stories soften my heart in a good way.
I think I came to believe in other people’s stories much more when I learned the power of telling my own. There is a profound sense of dignity accompanies the process of presenting oneself to another person, and feeling heard. Really heard. What’s more, the process of telling my story, as I do in small ways all the time on this blog, compels me to take ownership of my complex motives and subsequent actions in everyday life. I believe in giving other people the opportunity to experience this. I do that by taking seriously their lives, their stories, their reasons “why.”
Articulating my belief in the power of one’s story has me reflecting on how often I actually make time to hear people. I want to hear people more. I want to be changed and challenged by their stories. I need to stop and ask and listen more.