I recently had dinner with two friends. One of them had moved away from DC, so the three of us were catching up on events of the past year. I came to learn that night that the first friend's wife had miscarried once, and the second friend's wife had miscarried twice. It was a heavy, but rich, time. We mourned together and encouraged one another.
What struck me later was that I had been a bit surprised to learn that my friends had been grieving. It made me realize that I hadn't walked into the encounter assuming that there were hurts going on. I should have gone into that evening expecting both friends to have burdens, even if I didn't know what they were. And I should go into every interaction with everyone expecting the same. Perhaps their marriage is struggling, or joblessness is causing depression, or an injustice at work is filling them with anger, or illness is stealing their joy, or an addiction is destroying their life. Of course it's very possible that when I ask "How are things?" that they are telling the truth when they say "good". But I was reminded to assume that there was a story to hear, and potentially one full of hard things.
I've been reflecting further on this, and thinking more about stories. When we engage people, we're really entering into multiple layers of stories. We can think of Layer 1 as the immediate narrative (How are you doing?). Layer 2 is their origin narrative (Where are you from? Who are your people? What has shaped you?). If we get a chance to hear about the stories from Layer 2, it might drastically change how we view Layer 1. Insecurities of today may come from hurts of yesterday. The fiery passion to succeed in a career may have been kindled in a painful childhood. Counselors and psychologists study these inter-related stories in detail so they can help people who are a bit "stuck". But the reality is that all of us are a bit stuck. We all need friends who want to go beyond Layer 1.
Then there's Layer 3, which is the meta-narrative, or cosmic story, that explains what someone believes (What do you think is the meaning of life? Do you believe in a God, and what is he like? Do we have moral obligations?). Whereas Layers 1 and 2 are rooted in experiences, Layer 3 is based upon faith. For this reason, Layer 3 may be very fluid. A person may believe in something, but not actually live according to that set of beliefs. In fact, all of us find ourselves inconsistent when it comes to Layer 3.
But what is powerful about Layer 3 is that it provides the framework for how a person interprets stories in Layers 1 and 2. Whether someone believes in a loving God, or a demanding God, or no God, will shape how they see the experiences of their immediate and origin narratives.
Learning a person's stories from all three layers takes time and effort, because it requires building trust. But it is a labor of love. I hope I will grow in my desire and ability to be a hearer of stories.
Writen by Elder Chris Moore