Maneuvering through the pale morning light in traffic yesterday, my husband and I saw a man execute a backflip on the side of the road.
It was rush hour traffic into Kampala—a curious insanity one cannot fully appreciate until wading, navigating, and experiencing minor heart attacks through it. The spectacle of swerving vehicles (or debacle, depending on the beholder) was flanked by Africans shouting, or performing that awkward backpack-toting-run to school in a rainbow of uniforms, or arranging wares in the orange dust, or trudging with goods stacked atop their heads.
And then, there was the backflip.
I looked at my husband. “Did you see that?” “Yeah. He does it a lot.” I thought I’d seen it last week, too, yet shook it from my mind as an oddity.
But my husband was a veteran of harrowing Ugandan traffic, where there is always something yanking at your attention. You just hope it’s yanked by the right event at the right time. “He’s often wondering around though. He seems kind of in his own world.”
Hmm. I’d wondered: the man’s half-buttoned, worn shirt; the rolled-up trousers. Oh. And the backflip alongside the Traffic of Death.
It reminded me of a quote I’d read a week before that captivated my attention as a writer, a reader, a people-watcher. Tim Keller writes in his book Every Good Endeavor, “People cannot make sense of anything without attaching it to a story line.”
He cites an illustration by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who asks that we imagine we’re at a bus stop. A young man comes up to us: “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionics histrionicus histrionicus.”
Keller explains, “Even though you understand the sentence, his action makes no sense…The only way to make sense of it is to try to learn the story into which this event fits. Perhaps the young man is mentally ill…” Perhaps he’s mistaken you for someone else that he met in the library yesterday, asking him the Latin name of the duck. Or my personal go-to in these situations: Does that guy have a Bluetooth, or is he simply participating in an involved conversation with himself?
But that’s what’s fascinating about humanity, isn’t it? Every person we encounter trails a story unraveling behind them, indeed forming the person before us.
And, Keller notes, if we get the story wrong…we get our response wrong.
As I conducted entrance interviews at the refugee center yesterday, I found myself moved by those before me unable to even convey a slice of their story, limited by their English. (When I tried to communicate in Spanish during a stint in Venezuela, my limited vocabulary made me feel like my IQ had spontaneously dropped 20 points.) One man sat before me, grinning and eager, repeating the few English words of mine he could extract: President. Accept. Home. I confess to laughing aloud once as he nodded in apparent understanding, while his few incomprehensible answers belied the truth: I have no idea what you’re saying! But I’m willing and ready to learn!
Another woman, fresh from her country and without any documents, simply shrugged and attempted a smile as I presented questions. More than one tear slipped down the side of her face: “I no speak English.”
The tears made me wonder what she was undergoing. Was she wondering if her lack of English would rob one of her only remaining solutions? Was she simply overwhelmed with loss and unfamiliarity and powerlessness?
I don’t know her story.
Stories tug us relentlessly into compassion. I’m amazed by the power of books I read from a villain’s perspective—how if a reader doesn’t feel compassion for a person who might completely collide with the reader’s value system, the reader can still develop a sense of, Ah. I get it. As irrational or misguided as you are, I am starting to get the idea of how you could do that.
Stories help us make sense of those around us. On the converse, lack of an accurate story can lead to profound misunderstanding, conflict, and pain.
Stories assemble our empathy; help us imagine ourselves in the singing triumphs and utter losses and mundane trivialities of another’s complicated saga.
They keep the people before us from becoming machines in our eyes, simply there to serve a purpose for us.
You might say that knowing someone’s story is a form of loving.
I feel that I am becoming addicted to narrative: To what makes up the people before me on the construction site near my house, or minding the till at the grocery store, or gazing skeptically or enthusiastically at me in my class. If I go a little overboard with questions on someone’s subculture or interviewing an eight-year-old, perhaps you can just chalk it up to my preoccupation with how we become what we are.
Whose story will you uncover today?