January 11, 2016

Telling the Difficult Stories

It’s easier to avoid the difficult stories. We know this in our personal lives, of course: no one really likes to talk about their divorce, or the time they got fired. It’s also true in communities: we don’t talk about the families who left because of theological disagreement, the split in the vestry a few years ago. Telling these stories feels like gossip or dwelling on the bad moments, but perhaps there is a time and a place to tell them.

As my wife and I prepare for our baby, I’ve begun reading books about raising children. In the book I’ve been reading recently called The Whole Brain Child, the authors explain that children need to tell stories. It helps them make sense of their experiences.

It’s tempting to simply distract children from their difficult moments with ice cream or to insist that they are now fine so they shouldn’t worry. But recounting again and again the time they fell off their bike or got sick at school helps them move forward. The story doesn’t stop at the painful experience, but continues on to how mom or dad took care of them, how the painful moment was resolved.

This is relevant to adults, too, and communities. Just as we sometimes need to talk about things with a friend or partner or therapist, sometimes a community needs to talk things out. While we don’t want to recount stories that are none of our business, neither do want to simply distract ourselves from the difficult times or pretend that they no longer matter. This never gives us a chance to come to terms with the painful things that happened and why, and also how they were resolved. If we never have a resolution, then they still feel threatening. We need to tell the story because the story is how we make them into a meaningful narrative.

We have a model for this in our liturgy, which recounts the crucifixion every Sunday. Good Friday is not a happy day, but an important one we observe every day. We acknowledge it as a part of the Christian story and, after three days, we move the resurrection. 

How can also tell our own difficult narratives? It seems to me that sometimes these stories can be told appropriately from the pulpit. Sometimes they need to be told in vestry meetings, sometimes at annual meetings, or perhaps more informally in small groups. Does your community have difficult stories it needs to tell? Have you ever seen this done well? And how and where can these stories be told? 

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