The problem with projecting into other people’s stories

by Kristin on August 23, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by mac.rj

I was reading a post the other day by a woman lamenting the number of older couples in her life who felt obligated to tell her how difficult marriage was going to be. In the author’s experience, none of the forewarned trials had come to pass. In fact, she calls the first year of her marriage “wonderful.”

As I read the post, reflecting back on my 22-year-old self, I couldn’t relate. In fact, I was thinking just the opposite: No one warned me how difficult marriage would be! No one planted just enough fear in me to make me step back and ask if marriage was really something I was really ready for! Instead, society and the church seemed to present marriage as an ideal—the route to a life of happiness (not to mention the best way to avoid the sin of premarital sex).

Just as I was contemplating the best way to cement the “marriage is so difficult” message into the minds of as many 20-year-olds as possible, I realized the irony inherent in my reaction: In the process of protesting against someone’s slanted “marriage is wonderful” message, I wanted to proclaim my own slanted message, to the contrary.

Then I realized what’s really wrong with this whole scenario: the word “message.” I want to pretend, somehow, that my very subjective story can be spun into a universal message. In the midst of our fear and confusion about life, we want to believe there is a one-size-fits-all slogan or jingle to apply to any common life experience, whether it be getting married, having children, or making a living as a freelance writer. These may be experiences that many people have, but no two experiences are the same. There are no tidy blanket statements we can wrap them up in, there are only subjective stories.

And stories do need to be told. But think about it—what makes a story a great story? Not sweeping generalizations about universal themes, but the details, the specifics around those themes. Without an openness to sharing and claiming those specifics, our stories become something else, and that something else can be harmful. Our broad messages have the potential to shape someone’s expectations, to amplify their experiences, and to exaggerate their response.

If we want to talk about something like marriage, the only story we can share is our own—as honestly as possible, without making broad statements or generalizations. Our stories should not carry loud morals or prescriptive advice. They should simply share what we’ve experienced. They will fall on the ears of people who need to feel less alone, or need to see their own situation from a different perspective. If we tell our stories in truth, they will do the work they need to do.

And as I respect my own story for what it is, I also need to have great respect for the stories of others—especially those that seem to fly in the face of my own experiences. As someone who got a divorce after a decade of struggle and pain and counseling, I can assure you there’s nothing more hurtful than having people dismiss your experience by telling you, “Marriage is really hard—you obviously didn’t work hard enough,” or “We’ve had some really tough times, too, but we’re committed to staying married.”

Each story is valid. Yours is the only one you get to speak truth into.

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  • HopefulLeigh

    YES! I find this comes across more clearly (or it can, at least) in relationship, when you’re sharing your story with someone else and they’re sharing theirs with you. When I write a piece of my story, I find myself wanting to add caveats and disclaimers. Even in the piece I scheduled for tomorrow. Maybe because readers don’t know the real life me and won’t know my words are not out of judgment or sweeping generalizations? This is good to think through, Kristin.

  • Annette Skarin

    I’ve been hiding my own story with all its jagged pieces because all I see are all these smooth lives with perfect endings and beginnings (at least on the surface). My story is about pain covered by grace. The jagged indentations impressed on my soul make me shout “His grace is sufficient.” “It is Finished!” and “There is no condemnation.” My blog story is under construction but I think I need to drive in the finishing nails. I have two blog spots that have a lot of fluff and humor – and I believe these are part of the whole. I might get the bends from diving so deep but I’m gaining more courage to put the whole out there. Thanks for the wonderfully honest post.

  • sarah louise

    Somewhere I picked up the phrase, “nobody really knows what went on in the bedroom,” meaning, you NEVER know another couple’s story. And even if they share some details, you will still never *really* know their story. Best to keep working on my own story, as shattered as it sometimes feels. (Isn’t that why we cling to other people’s stories sometimes? Their problems seem fixable, whereas ours seem insurmountable?)


  • Esther

    This problem makes me crazy. Sometimes I think about subjectivity in my own story, and that causes writer’s block. Sometimes I think about objectivity in other people’s stories, and that makes me want to give away about half of my bookshelf. To me the problem is the expectation that first person stories can ever be fact. They’re always stories. Thinking of memoir as factual is like trying to make cookies in a muffin tin.
    Anyway, I like the way you think, Kristin.

  • Erin

    Absolutely. This makes me think of right before I got married and we got SO much advice and some of it was absolutely bizarre. It made me angry because they obviously did not know our story as a couple.
    Sharing advice can make people feel bad when things don’t go as expected, but sharing stories creates community and understanding.

  • Jen

    When I was surprisingly pregnant with our third, people were incredibly rude about the number of children we had. Which is funny, becuase three doesn’t come close to hordes. Seems like a perfectly normal number of kids. But I was struggling mentally and emotionally about how I was going to parent these people. So their words were like agreement: I was not up to this task. One woman, ONE woman, was kind about it. She went on and on about how awesome three is. I still remember her words. A perfect demonstration of your point. We all carry our own message. I’m not sure why we think we need share it with others.

    When I meet with pregnant mamas, I tell them nothing about my own births or what I would do. Because they are not me. I HATE it when people tell me that what they got is what I should expect. Why can’t we have coffee and talk about this today.?

  • Ray Hollenbach

    There are few things more annoying than someone who simply presumes that their experience is normative, or worse, prescriptive. As you pointed out so clearly, our stories are valid precisely because they are our stories, not someone else’s.

    It is difficult to listen to others gracefully when they have an expectation that everyone will/should suffer as they did, or experience ease and joy as they did. I try to change the subject in such discussions, but I suspect the edge in my voice still gives me away. Everyone should change the subject when this happens, don’t you think? :-)

  • Sarah Bessey

    I pretty much want to print this and hand it out on street corners. I felt that same tension about marriage, I can’t make broad sweeping claims, I can only tell my own story, and so I do. Great post, K, as always.

  • Hope

    THANK YOU! We need to see past the one size fits all religion of marriage and become real with eachother. It seems to me that those who dole out advice are afraid of their own story. I’ll be passing this on!

  • Kristin T.

    HopefulLeigh, you’re exactly right about the importance of relationships. Maybe this “telling your story” approach has built-in safeties: If you don’t know the person well enough to share your story, or you don’t care enough to take the time to do so, maybe you shouldn’t be speaking into that person’s life at all. Of course, that doesn’t apply to our blogging practice—that’s a different beast! (I’m heading over to read your post as soon as I finish here!)

    Annette, I know this feeling: “I’ve been hiding my own story with all its jagged pieces because all I see are all these smooth lives with perfect endings and beginnings.” But as you pointed out, those smooth lives are only part of the story. I’m glad you’re in the process of working through the telling of your whole story.

    sarah louise, I think you’re exactly right about this: “Isn’t that why we cling to other people’s stories sometimes? Their problems seem fixable, whereas ours seem insurmountable?” Even though sometimes people just want to share their pain, other times they do sincerely want to help—they want to prevent the same calamity they endured. Unfortunately, that method just doesn’t seem to work.

    Esther, the Catch 22 you described made me laugh! It is such a conundrum. In a memoir-writing workshop I took this summer, we always referred to “the narrator” when we discussed one another’s work, rather than saying “you” to the author. It’s a subtle thing, but it really helped in various ways, one of which is reminding ourselves that the story might be about me, but it can never encompass all of me.

    Erin, wouldn’t it be great if we approached one another with this attitude: I have a story to tell about marriage—soon enough you’re going to have your own story to tell!” It would really help even out our expectations and worry less about whether our experience is “normal.”

  • Annie

    This post has been so centering for me. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately. I am so tempted, all the time, to wrap things up into neat little packages, make everything palatable and shrink it down til I can keep it in my fist. I want all my stories to give God glory, so I de-emphasize the doubt and the hard, the unknown and the ugly. And when it all basically shattered, and I had to admit how broken and ugly my own heart was in the face of deep grief, I found new packaging – “we’re all broken and beautiful.” It is true, I think, but in some ways it has become just new wrapping paper. I can sum it all up, always, with that. I’m slowly learning to just live my story, just tell it plain. And to hear others’ stories, to hold them and just listen. Thank you for this.

  • Kristin T.

    Jen, I so wish that we could have coffee and talk about this! Thanks for sharing part of your experience here.

    Ray, this blog is a perfect platform for discounting the whole idea of a “normal” experience, isn’t it? :) There’s no such thing, of course, so changing the subject when these stories about what’s normal come up seems like a pretty good tactic.

    Sarah, I am SO thankful that you tell your story, and that you tell it in the personal, rich, yet non-invasive way that you do.

    Hope, this strikes me as very wise and perceptive: “It seems to me that those who dole out advice are afraid of their own story.” We have a knack for finding ways to hide, don’t we? It’s just extra unfortunate when those methods negatively impact others.

    Annie, what you said about finding new packaging for our stories is so true! It’s very easy to fall into new versions of the same old traps rather than to “just live my story, just tell it plain,” like you said. Thank you for listening to my story, and holding it. Blessings as you find the most honest ways to tell your stories.

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