I was sitting by a bonfire in California when I first really heard someone else’s story.
It was the summer of 2008 and I was attending a 10-day leadership program in Southern California. I was one of approximately 20 17-year-olds who had spent the last several days getting to know each other through service and activities.
It was our final night. We were gathered around the enormous bonfire, sitting close. Our leader stood before us and invited us all to do something that both thrilled me and made me anxiously uncomfortable: he invited us to stand up and share an experience that had a deep impact on our life.
My stomach instantly filled with butterflies as I thought about standing before this group of people I barely knew and describing something so significant. Would I share about my first encounter with God? My fears of being unpopular at school? My recent breakup from my first boyfriend?
As I sat there anxiously trying to figure out what I would say, one by one the others stood up and described moments and experiences with such vulnerability I had never heard before. There were stories of not living up to expectations, rape, eating disorders, deep hopes and fears, heartache, joy, estranged parents, etc. There were tears, stammered words, and sighs of relief as though a great weight was being released.
When it was finally my turn, I was surprised to find that the words coming out of my mouth were filled with deep appreciation. To stand before a group of people who were willing to let me see them, truly see them, and wanted to truly see me too was a gift I had rarely encountered before. I thanked them and loved them for giving me the opportunity. And I wanted more of it.
Over the last few years I have now had countless opportunities to share my life story in different settings. And each time I am overwhelmed by the goodness which takes place as a result:
Stories remind us we are not alone. So often painful experiences are made worse by the belief that everyone else is living a carefree life. When we have the courage to share our struggles and experiences we allow others a space of peace, a place where they can breathe and find rest in knowing they are not isolated (and neither are we).
Stories give encouragement, whether we realize it or not. Something I continue to be surprised about is the response I receive from writing this blog. One of the most common things I get from people is, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear this.” They’re right, I didn’t! When I write about my personal experiences and perspectives, I never know if anyone will actually resonate with it. But putting those stories into the world gives others a chance to, and it’s always a rush of joy when they do.
Stories help us gain perspective on our own experiences. Last fall I had the opportunity to share my life story during my internship. We were encouraged to process what we would say beforehand and create a timeline of our life. As I was remembering influential moments and relationships, I realized there was a common theme among my timeline: community. I did not realize my life thus far has been characterized by an importance of community and how I have grown in such a setting. Preparing to share my story helped me understand this and gave me insight into how I best experience life.
Stories allow us to be known. When I stood up in front of that bonfire in California and shared my story, I felt, even briefly, that I was truly known by others. And I have to say, being known and loved because of it (or in spite of it) may be the best feeling in the world. It’s freeing, safe and intimate. It instantly forms a genuine connection between you and others that somehow beautifully remains precious over time.
Sharing your story is not always an easy thing. But the gift you give others and yourself in doing so is one that has a beautiful and worthwhile impact.
Have you had a chance to share your life story with someone? What have you learned from it?