The Stories We Tell

For Valentine’s Day this year, my husband Jason and I opted out of the traditional […]

For Valentine’s Day this year, my husband Jason and I opted out of the traditional romantic candlelit dinner scenario and, instead, took a too-seldom trip to the movie theater to see Black Panther. As with Wonder Woman before it, I had high expectations due to pre-release buzz surrounding the film. Also, I was just excited to watch something that wasn’t animated (PJ Masks, I’m looking at you).

A spate of recent movies and TV shows, including the aforementioned, has stepped intentionally into the arena of untold or undertold-as-yet stories, narratives in which the main characters occupy a group that has been questionably represented: females, people of color, the mentally ill, even pescatarians.

I have been told via several celebrity Twitter accounts that if I found Black Panther confronting, then I am suffering from privilege. Five-years-ago me would have put quotes around those two descriptors, balking at such unfair accusations. But last-month-me watched a story begin in a dicey part of Oakland, then saw royal African attire displayed in Wakanda, and knew that the snap judgments I used to employ as truth are always waiting beneath the surface, ready to be accessed. Specters from my past, buried under but not fully erased by years of grace, rose up during the film. What could this have to do with you? A voice hissed into my ear, its own origin story one of geography, learned behavior, and good old sin. This, even as the images onscreen brought tears to my eyes on behalf of all the children who now see heroes who look like them.

Sin is ugly. And complicated. And deep.

So is life. Which should leave us begging for more stories, not fewer.

An inventory of the emojis used on my phone would reveal the laugh/cry one to be my favorite. Is there another that so perfectly, and often, captures life? It’s the same thing that draws me to podcasts like The Hilarious World of Depression, one I’ve mentioned before. A recent episode featuring Rachel Bloom left me resolved to skip over to Netflix to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A couple of months and seasons later, I’m glad I did. The titular, winkingly-described Rebecca moves across the country after a chance encounter with a former boyfriend–this, after quitting her NYC law firm, believing she’s destined for happiness with her high-school-camp love. What begins as a whimsical rom-com quickly becomes something deeper, darker…better. Rebecca, you see, has a past, complete with breakdowns and hospitalizations, medications and mental illness. She is a fully-drawn, complicated, messy protagonist, and she resembles me (and my favorite people) more than any traditional rom-com heroine ever could.

Co-existing emotions? That IS crazy!

Watching Black Panther couldn’t have, for me, been as foundational and monumental an experience as it rightfully was for some (check out this beautiful essay), but it was profound nonetheless. I walked away thinking it was both wonderful, and horribly sad, that I’d never seen anything like it. The story itself, like all good ones, placed tragedy and joy next to each other, most memorably in the climactic final scene between Killmonger and T’Challa. This, after all, is life: a jumbled mess of emotions, none possible without the other. Life itself, indeed, not possible without some form of death being always present.

Nouwen wrote about this–the intertwined nature of joy and sadness:

The spiritual life, thus understood, radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed–yes, living and dying…you can see how the many distinctions that are so central in our daily living lose their meaning. When joy and pain are both opportunities to say ‘Yes’ to our divine childhood, then they are more alike than they are different…The spiritual life counteracts the countless divisions that pervade our daily life and cause destruction and violence. These divisions are interior as well as exterior:  the divisions among our most intimate emotions and the divisions among the most widespread social groupings… Wherever the Spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself.

There is a South African word, Oprah tells me, called ubuntu. It means “I am because you are.” Stories told from other points of view allow us the opportunity to see ourselves in different people; they tell us things about ourselves that we both always, and maybe never, knew. They make less “them” and more “us.” Less “other” and more “we.”

We need more stories without neat endings and too-finely-delineated categories, that reflect the now-and-not-yet nature of the Gospel, indeed, both the anxiety and hope of living in this world. And sometimes these stories are best told by people whose struggles may look different from our own.

Brene Brown, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett, put it this way:

Our need for either/or, not ‘and,’ is driven by our lack of capacity for vulnerability. It’s really hard to straddle the tension of yes/and.

A couple of weeks ago my older son’s therapist told me that in class, the teacher asked what the students were thankful for and one boy said, “That I’m healthy and not autistic.” The comment went unnoticed by my son but SURE AS HELL NOT BY ME. Perhaps the most difficult part of it, since my son’s emotional state was unharmed, was the call to arms it was for me as a mother. For a while I’d suspected that I might need to speak to his peers about autism—to tell his story—and to be honest, I’d rather watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix. Real life—it’s just so demanding, you know?

But into the classroom I went, with my youngest son on my lap and my older son standing beside me, alternately shy and beaming. I told the story of his special brain while his classmates watched, rapt. As I let them in on the narrative, coupled with pictures of James throughout his life, I watched them look at him and smile. I watched them know him. And since then, I’ve watched them love him: seeking him out on the playground, asking to come over to our house, making sure he had enough eggs at the school Easter hunt.

So forgive me if this all feels a bit personal to me now: the idea of outsiders being ushered in through hearts opened by stories. But shouldn’t it be personal for all of us—we who once were lost, but now are found?

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2 responses to “The Stories We Tell”

  1. Rebecca says:


  2. […] For this reason, the structure of Citizen is a gracious gift. When we see ourselves as the main characters, we may grow in empathy, we may be changed. – Charlotte […]

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