As he spoke, his struggle with sexual abuse and addiction poured out. His past felt dark and shady. He was the person my mother and father had warned me about. Worthy of pity? Yes. But not much else. These were the others. And yet as he shared his fragile and bumpy story this being at the microphone somehow succeeded in inviting me to reconsider something. Not that he was perfect. Not that he had made no mistakes. But that he was simply real. And by the time he was done sharing his story – in less than seven minutes – he was no longer the representation of all that was to be feared. He became human. Like me.
All of this happened last Friday at my local library.
Yep. Twice a year Hutchinson Kansas produces what’s called Talk 20 Hutch. It’s a low tech platform for individuals from our community to tell their story. Using 20 PowerPoint slides – and 20 seconds of talk per slide – each presenter gets to share a story that tells about themselves. This has been going on now for six years. And what started with a local crowd of about 100 residents has now grown to over 400. And we still meet in the local library.
I’ll admit it. I do love a good story. Especially stories that feel authentic and a bit vulnerable. When I say vulnerable I’m not talking about syrup and scandal. I’m talking about what feels real. I’m talking about what feels closer to the earthy side of life. That side that’s not so perfect or grandiose. When stories have this combination they draw me in. I see myself in them. And when that happens I feel a sense of connection. Again, not in a syrupy, drama driven way but in a way that says “You’re human too, just like me.”
This idea of being human feels curious to me. It would seem like all people, by virtue of their existence, have been bequeathed with the title of human. Heck, we call ourselves the “human” race. Yet, strangely, each of us also seem to have been bequeathed with the capacity to look at those around us and declare them not human. Yes, that’s what I said. We can declare other human beings as something other than human – less than human – less than me.
Being declared nonhuman feels like a game changer to me. But equally powerful is our ability to declare humanness. Seeing others as humans feels like an invitation to sit with one another. I may not agree with every way you view the world. But when you become human to me, I choose to not loose site of our common connection. I choose to believe that we are indeed seeking to navigate more effectively through this existence called life. Again, we may not agree on what a win looks like there but we can still sit in the story together.
That sounds quaint doesn’t it? Maybe even naïve. But we all know better – right? Monsters really do exist don’t they. Monsters that are spreading a doctrine different from our own. They are the representation of all we stand against. If I give an inch to them they will prevail over me. Real life isn’t about reaching, it’s about protecting. It’s about vigilance against the transgressors.
Does that resonate with you?
If so, I want you to know that I think I get it…but with an important nuance. Let me try to explain with a story…
As I understand World War 2 there was a moment when a hard decision had to be made. A doctrine was marching around the world and that doctrine had perpetuated a military movement. It was a movement that viewed certain beings as less than – non human. As a Boomer child that narrative informed my young world view. As a result, I felt quite emboldened to view the German people as the enemy. Not only that, as I understood it, all Germans were Nazi’s. And, as Nazi’s, they were my enemy. The German people represented bad things. They were not to be trusted. Even decades after the end of the war a version of that narrative still informed my world view.
And then…in my late 40’s I was thrown together, for an extended amount of time, with a small group of young German adults who had come to America to serve in some challenged communities in my town. And as we worked together something happened. Through hearing their stories and making some of our own together I was forced to reconsider the worldview of my youth. These young adults were not the “enemy.” These young people had names and personalities. They were authentic and vulnerable. They were human – just like me.
Did I now agree with the Nazi agenda and message? No. Actually, neither did they. Did I still believe that the Nazi ideology was something to be vigilant of? Yes. But something had allowed me to separate an ideology from a human. It was their story. I am forever indebted to this group of bright young adults who, by their willingness to invite me into their story, transformed forever how I view the German people.
So – what am I getting at? It just feels like, when we see one another as more human, the conversation seems to shift a bit. And the story, our more vulnerable, authentic story, is a catalytic part of that. Will it fix everything? Probably not. But it sure feels like an experiment worthy of some effort. Something worthy of a bit more wonder.