Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “those three little words.” But I believe that most of us including me, until recently, have been wrong about which three little words they were. “I love you” has always been the clichéd triad of words behind the phrase. Rightfully so I suppose, as it seems the trump card of all the possible affirmative statements to leave our lips. But I have come to find, through no epiphany of my own, that the most powerful of phrases is not a statement at all, but a question. Simple, straightforward, and if asked for all the right reasons, unassuming and without prejudice. “What’s your story?” That question may be the most powerful utterance one could ever dare put forth. It bridges divides like no other span in the world. Take the Golden Gate Bridge, the New River Gorge Bridge, and practically any bridge in China (which has a freakish number of crazy long bridges), piece them end to end together and all you’ve got is a great distance to travel. No collection of girder and guy-wire or for that matter, satellite feed and fiber-optic cable, can shorten the canyon of race, religion, politics and personal experience that separates the majority of us.
I first came in from the cold on this concept a couple of years ago while listening to an NPR round-table discussion about violence and strife in a world smaller, but seemingly so divided. The round-table included several clergy, statesman and members of the press. I know this seems like the set-up to a bad joke – “three guys go into a bar…,” but it was a wonderful, respectful and thoughtful discussion. In the end I was struck, nearly dumbfounded, by one reporter’s insight. I was struck by the straight-to- the heart power of his thought and dumbfounded by it obviousness. He said that although the world has been made smaller (in a good way) by information and technology, we don’t use that technology or the narrowing of the distance to engage one another substantively. Our communication is truncated on every level, from the words we no longer fully form (lol), to the absence of emotion and perspective infused in our day-to-day interactions. He bemoaned the sad fact that we simply don’t ask people to tell us their story, and believes that if we did, there would be less hate, fear and violence.
I have put this phrase to the test many times since hearing it and it’s not only been a windfall for me as a writer, but a much-needed tune-up for me as a human being. The first time I used it was with a repairman that had come to work on my house. It was clear from the bumper stickers on his car and on mine that our politics and cultural beliefs leaned far away from one another. We easily confirmed that by trading veiled insults about the ass-ends of our cars. Our early interactions were uncomfortable to say the least, until I asked him that powerful question during a break. What’s your story? I had to clarify what I meant and that I wanted to know more than how he navigated to my house. I honestly wanted to know how he arrived at this point in his life. He seemed to be taken back by the question, but was instantly disarmed by it and amazingly open with his life story. We are friends now, and although we still have the same adornments on our cars, we mean more to each other than than just someone’s message on a bumper sticker.
I use these three little words all the time now. Just in this last week, I have heard the story of a young 18-year-old kid’s passion for music and people. He’s a busker of bass on lower Broad Street and a forger of iron, just looking to find himself. Hell, aren’t we all? I’ve heard an accomplished songwriter’s amazing story of growing up in an Alaskan religious commune, with all the inherent struggles, coming out on the other side with a creative pen as sharp as any defensive blade. I have realized that I have the exact ITunes collection as someone twenty years my senior and politically a planet away from me. I learned that his life lessons and losses were not dissimilar from my own, and the same moment in a particular song that evoked emotion in him, does so for me.
In the end, the reporter was right. Once you ask someone to tell you their story it is not possible to hate them or to fear them. Once you ask someone to tell you their story they no longer go misunderstood. Judging them is not an easy or a bloodless sport anymore. And maybe most importantly, the need to find leverage by which to gain position evaporates into the ether of other similarly ridiculous notions. Go ahead, just try and convince me that these three little words, “what’s your story,” can’t actually change the world. I bet they can. In fact, I’m betting the second act of my life on the fact that they can.
Here’s a challenge for you. Try it this week with someone that you have struggled with, wondered about or better yet, someone all together random. Ask them the question and let me know how it goes. Seriously. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about your experience! I‘d like to know.
Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“Its the Music That Makes Us Smile”
LIFE IS A FOUR-TICKET RIDE