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What Is Your Story?

One of the ideas I find truly fascinating is the sheer range of experience we each represent; the lives we have led and the wonders--some colossal, some microscopic--that we have seen. Just one person’s life story--replete with the spark of every synapse, the nuance of color, the texture of sound--is so vast, forming such a complete and compelling universe, that it is literally beyond our grasp. We can pass these details on only in tiny fragments, unable to express their interconnectedness or the whole from which they came.

Perhaps this is one reason art has risen to become such a jaw-droppingly major part of world history--any attempt at all to communicate these stories acts as a form of validation, both for storyteller and audience.

What makes this realization even more startling is the observation that we seem to perceive ourselves, and those around us, as existing entirely within the confines of a specific moment--that somehow this one instance is “more” real than anything prior. I’ve seen this happen all the time in New York. One encounters such a range of people that their actions in one moment become our entire basis for evaluating their character. Why?

A loud, aggressive panhandler has, for all we know, always been so. A gorgeous woman wakes up every morning looking perfect. The businessman who almost knocked you over on the way to his appointment is simply a rude and disrespectful person, always.

Even if we intellectually understand that these things aren’t necessarily true, we act as though we sincerely believe them. Actions taken in a specific moment, under specific circumstances, quickly become “compressed” into our only working representations of others. And while I’m certain this behavior is definitely fueled by an urban environment and the resulting constant influx of new faces, it is no less true anywhere in the world; the need to compress information about others is inherent to the deepest recesses of the human mind. We must constantly make these snap decisions in order to evaluate whom we may trust, whom we must fear, and whom we may befriend.

After visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., I tried to board the bus home to New York, but found there were no more seats as the agency had overbooked the trip. I waited an hour for a second bus, this time guaranteed and similarly almost full, and settled at random in a seat next to a woman on the phone. For roughly 15 minutes, we said nothing to each other, in that strange wordlessness that always seems to occupy travel with strangers, then suddenly started talking--almost impatient for conversation. We ended up chatting for most of the entire 5-hour ride, discovering a tremendous amount of common experience. When the subject turned to books, and in particular to Neil Gaiman, she offered to give me the copy of American Gods she was reading if I let her finish the last few chapters she had left. All this because of our clear interest in creating a more informed image of another person--something beyond a momentary judgment. An interest in communicating, however ineffectively, some small measure of experience; some aspect of the details which have led us to that point, and to our sitting next to each other on one particular bus on one particular day. Had I been on that first bus instead, I might have had a similar experience with an entirely different person. Perhaps I wouldn’t have an experience at all, merely settling with a subset of a personality expressed in a few mumbles of overheard phonecalls. Who knows?

When we discuss something at work or go to parties or eat lunch or meet someone new, we often feel as if those events are entirely self-contained; that our chosen address of the situation is based wholly on the events themselves, devoid of the markings of a past. In reality, every action we take is the result of “who we’ve been”; we are all vehicles for our stories.

Who Am I?

Some of us are black, Chinese, Hispanic, white. Some are men, some are women. We’re rich or poor or somewhere in between. Some of us are illiterate. Some of us are Yale graduates. Some of us have seen a sunrise over the Sahara; some of us have never seen the stars.

Can you live as all these possibilities?

Can you really claim to know anything at all, beyond your severely circumscribed existence?

Though you may think you know everything there is to know about your best friends, lovers, teachers, or relatives, you will never--and can never--know what it feels like to live as them. You might never know what their kindergarden classroom looked like, what their favorite memory is, what they studied their second year in college, or the way their living room looked in their first home. All these things can be asked, of course--and quantities and colors can be detailed readily enough--but it is virtually impossible to provide the actual experience, the actual feeling even of one’s most mundane moments. Eating a tomato at noon on a rainy Tuesday. Waiting for a friend. Wind blowing through a backyard. An ambulance’s siren.

What Is Your Story?

Realize that as you read this, the experiences and events of your life have conspired to make you see the world in a very specific and very personal way; one that allows you to be here in the first place. Even reading these words requires knowledge of English, a worldview that encourages curiosity and self-examination, willpower many do not have, and interest based on other attributes of your past. A dolphin will never be able to experience this moment the way you have; nor will a citizen of a far-flung country or even your next door neighbor. In essence your “story” allows you to be here. Your story is why you’re here.

So just what is that story? Do you hide it from others, or do your actions make it obvious? If your life was a feature film, what would the plot be?

Homework

Take this day--and hopefully every day, if you feel you can--to really delve deeper into the stories of others. Realize that no behaviors are born in isolation; that there is more pulsating beneath the surface of our actions than can ever be expressed. And just as you will never be able to truly experience life from another’s perspective, understand that they will never be able to experience yours.

Relax into this exquisite, insurmountable difference.

The more we are able to communicate about our existence, the more we can help others.

For today, live outside the habit of “compressing” others. Dig deeper. Find more. And reveal something of your own story, so that they are just as unable to “compress” you. Show yourself.

In the moments of our interactions, we can choose to focus solely on the events themselves, cut off from our past, adrift from our stories, or we can choose to make each moment bigger, each sentence grander; in every instant we can choose to proudly note that each of us is so much more than this.

The more we are able to “flip” our perspectives--and the less we are attached to our personal domains of sensory & experiential data--the more we can work together to create great things.

So share some tiny detail today. Recall your fifth birthday, or the clouds the day you first realized you could die. There are no such distinctions as “good” or “bad”--there are only experiences. And even the most mundane of experiences can be meaningful to another.

Why limit yourself to only living one life? There are 6 billion more, and each is made up of a trillion points of thought, ten thousand sparks of memory, a few billion smells and tastes and sounds. How can this not inspire? How can this not amaze?

It is truly an honor to be blessed with memory…

It is truly an honor to be blessed with a past.

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