Tell Your Story

Tom Shadyac is a pretty unusual guy. I AM, the documentary about Tom, is worth watching. Suffice it to say Tom’s not into stuff anymore. Tom came to realize our culture had become lost in what Thomas Merton called “the murderous din of our materialism.” But the real reason I mention Tom today is this passage in his book Life’s Operating Manual:

You cannot die without ever having told you story; you cannot die without ever having expressed who you truly are.

I think Tom’s on to something. And I think it might be the reason I’m writing this blog.

My father (your great grandfather, Vera) died a slow death from bladder cancer. We were never close. I don’t recall every sharing an intimate moment with him. I don’t recall him ever playing ball with me. Or any game for that matter (well, perhaps pinochle). He did take me hunting, but I really didn’t want to hunt. I loved animals. I was often afraid of my dad. He had a bad temper. I grew up feeling like he didn’t love me. Later in life I came to believe he probably did. But it was hard to be sure.

So when we knew he was dying from cancer, I thought perhaps we’d have an opportunity to share deeper thoughts. I thought he might open up, allowing me to understand better who he truly was. I looked forward to a deeper connection than we’d ever had.

It never happened. I’m not blaming him. It’s not a matter of blame. It’s just unfortunate. It made me feel like he died alone. I suppose we all die alone to one degree or another. It’s just that his death seemed more solitary than necessary (even though some of us were present).

So when I came across Shadyac’s words, they hit home. And I realized that perhaps this blog had a lot to do with dad. That had never occurred to me.

Of course, it has a lot to do with you, Vera. And me. I wanted you to know my story — to know who I truly am. But there is no guarantee I’ll be around to tell you when you’re old enough to understand. I hope you get something out of reading my story when the time is right for you. I know I get something out of sharing it.

Shadyac’s words got me to thinking about the reasons it’s so hard for us to tell our stories — our real stories, not the ones we put on resumes or C.V.s. Most of us, most of the time, live behind a curtain. We don’t want the world to see who we truly are. We fear rejection. Disapproval. Adverse impacts on our careers or business prospects. So we keep secrets. And we project an image.

We allow our closest friends to see more, of course. And perhaps some family members. But no one sees everything. No one knows our entire story.

Telling our story is risky. I know that I’m more comfortable telling more of my story today than I would have been when I had a career to worry about.

From a physical and cognitive standpoint, there is absolutely nothing good about aging. But there is one benefit to entering one’s later stages of life: you simply care less what other people think. There is less at risk. You’re more inclined to allow others to see who you truly are (for better or for worse!).

But life can’t be truly lived behind a curtain, Vera. And I’m not sure it’s good to wait until you’re old to tell your story — indeed, to live the story that is within you and waiting to be written and told.

You can’t be who you truly are and fulfill your dreams if your real and projected selves are in constant conflict. The resulting tension isn’t healthy. It’s life-depleting. True happiness can’t be found behind the curtain.

Yet revealing too much to the wrong people can make life hard. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid. Perhaps some things are better shared only with those who truly love us. Or perhaps not. I’m not sure.

As with most things I share in this blog, there is much about which I’m unsure. But I am sure of a few things.

  • I’m sure my life has been immensely better because I’ve been able to share it with another person — your grandmother. She doesn’t know my entire story — no one does and probably no one ever will — but she knows more than anyone else. And sometimes I think she knows me better than I know myself. It’s nice to have someone with whom you have such an intimate relationship. I hope you have such a relationship in your life.
  • I also know it’s been wonderful having a few close friends — people who care and whose lives are not dependent one iota on what you can do for them. Vera, if there is one thing I’d do differently if I could relive my life, I’d relish in those friendships and nurture them more than I did the first time around. Relationships matter. A lot. Treat them like the precious things they are.
  • I also know that in the professional setting (work environment, business relationships, etc.) most people don’t really care deeply about each other. The relationships are of positions, not people. I think it’s one of the reasons so many new retirees struggle. It’s the first time they realize how superficial many of those work “friendships” were. It also may be the first time they realize how much duplicitous conduct there is in the world. Some people claim to have hundreds of friends. I don’t see how that’s possible. I think what they call friends, I’d call acquaintances.

As I reflect on Shadyac’s comment, it occurs to me that our story is the only thing in life that is truly ours. It’s not a thing that can be here today and gone tomorrow. It’s not a projection of what we want others to believe. It’s not anything that others are projecting onto you. It’s ours. And no one else’s. And no one can take it from us.

As you go through life, Vera, listen to other people’s stories. I think most people desperately want others to know them even if they’re like your great granddad and have a hard time revealing their true selves. I think people crave authenticity. There is little of it in our world. When you have the opportunity to have an authentic relationship, seize it. But be on watch for those who merely feign authenticity. They can hurt you a lot if you’re not careful.

Above all, seek out and nurture real relationships — relationships based not merely on business interests or feelings of mutual economic gain — but relationships with people with whom you share interests, values, a yearning to connect and a zest for life — relationships based on love, curiosity and respect.

Such relationships are indeed precious. Having someone to listen to your story is a true gift as is having the opportunity to hear someone else’s true story. And when you’re in such a position, honor their story. Resist the urge to judge it. And spend time with others who aren’t looking to judge yours.

It’s highly probable I’ll be long gone before your story is complete. Yet I get to be a part of your life as you write your story. You’re already writing it even though you don’t know it. What a joy to be part of your story! What a joy to have you be part of mine.

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