In her historical narrative on Joseph, Jacob’s deserted son, American writer Madeleine L’Engle carefully unpacked the customs and culture around this crucial figure in Jewish history. She did this for a specific reason: We need to consider the full contours of a story to understand the why behind the what. She saw this as more than just a matter of history; it’s a central problem of contemporary culture:
Because we fail to listen to each other’s stories, we are becoming a fragmented human race.
L’Engle rightly described our current circumstances. Fragmented. Broken down into separate parts and disengaged segments. We lack connection with one another when we fail to take the time to attend, be attentive, and understand.
Many of us live in apartments or townhouses, where our neighbors sleep on the other side of a poorly insulated wall, mere feet from our pillow. But our close physical proximity is out of proportion to our level of intimacy. We exchange pleasantries in the elevator, but there’s a lack of mutual relationship. And not a few of us experience similar disconnection in our homes, at work, and in places of worship. And most damning of all, fragmentation births detachment, which in turn produces a lack of care.
The Old English word for care is carian, describing a concern for, an interest in. To care for another is to move toward them, to have an inclination, an attentiveness. When the phrase “couldn’t care less” appeared in the 1800s, it helped clarify the term care’s essence. If I feel no positive emotion toward someone, and no desire to move in their direction, they won’t receive my interest. I’ll care less.
L’Engle’s answer to this challenge? Listen to each other’s stories.
Behind each of our facades is our personal story. Emerging from our life history, our story helps us maintain and organize our reality. It gives us meaning, an interpretation of what the world is like and how it works. As various events occur, we fit them into our story, and when they don’t correspond to our inner narrative, we experience a disconnect. Our story is the core of who we are, interwoven with where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. To know me is to know my story. To only see my behavior and hear my words is to miss my story.
Preoccupation with our own story leads us to not care about the stories of others. When my story matters most, I have been lured in by the individualism of the culture. Life revolves around me. My capacity to listen to others is limited, and I rarely say “Tell me more.”
Listening to other people’s stories is hard work. It requires attentiveness and engagement to move from the shallow end out into deeper water. Stories are complicated and messy, circular and angled, and offer an invitation to care and not cure, be present and not solve. And they take time to tell. There are no shortcuts for listening to stories. While various cyberspace-communication modes can relay information, listening to stories requires a thoughtfulness that is best expressed face-to-face, over time, with respectful curiosity. Saying “Tell me more” involves sacrifice. Sacrifice for the other.
Not listening to each other’s stories may be one of the essential elements missing in contemporary culture.
As L’Engle argued, it may also give us a glimpse into why there’s so much fragmentation.
As a Christian, I want to be known as someone who listens to the stories of others. But I know the stereotype. Christians talk and tell, preach and proselytize. We are known as people who want to influence, not attend. Communicating our story is a much higher value than engaging others’ stories.
When I read about Jesus, I’m struck by how different he was from many Christians (an odd sentence, I know). When he interacted with people, he listened. So much of his teaching came out of the subtleties and nuances embedded in others’ stories. As he attended to what they were saying, he’d build off a word, a turn of phrase, a throwaway comment, and pull their story together into his own. While Jesus lived by conviction and principle, you never get the sense that this was to exclude others and their experiences. As he listened, he said things that could only come from the perspective of really hearing the other. Why would he tell a respectable religious man he needed to be born again but discuss worship with an immoral outcast woman? Wouldn’t you think a woman caught in the act of adultery would get a rougher ride from Jesus than the men who exposed her? These paradoxes are only explainable through understanding his ability to listen to others’ stories.
And if I broaden beyond Jesus to the rest of the Christian Scriptures, so much of it is story. Stories about God’s work in the world. Experiences of humans tainted by brokenness relayed on the sacred page—lives of saints, sinners, and skeptics, all woven together as part of a bigger story. You could argue that a proper reading of the Bible requires us to listen well to others’ stories.
Taken from Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More.: How to Change the World with 3 Sacred Sayings by Rod Wilson. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
Rod Wilson has worked as a psychologist, served as a pastor in three different churches, and held multiple roles in theological education, including President of Regent College in Vancouver, Canada from 2000-2015. Rod currently works with Lumara Grief and Bereavement Care Society, A Rocha, the Society of Christian Schools in BC, and In Trust Center for Theological Schools, and maintains an international teaching and mentoring ministry. His latest book, Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More., released from NavPress in January 2022.