People tell me stories

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
June 26th, 2021

People tell me stories. It’s not that I ask them to, they just do. Now this made sense when I was practicing psychology and people would come into the office for 50 minutes and pour their hearts out or spin fantasies that they thought would protect them from talking about what really mattered. But now, six years into retirement?

It can happen anywhere, at the checkout counter, in front of the recycling bins at the town dump, on a park bench, in a Zoom meeting, on the phone, or in a text. The stories come pouring in from friends, colleagues, and total strangers. Maybe I have one of those faces that say I’m approachable or perhaps a soothing voice, but more likely it’s just that I’ve learned to see the signs that someone wants to speak and intuitively give them room to say what’s on their mind.

I’m not complaining. It feels good to make a connection with someone and discover those bridges of empathy that link us together like a chain of barrier islands against the storm. When you reach your senior years, the storms multiply and the stories become more urgent, the ones you hear and the ones you want to tell.

The storms of our later years often involve health problems, and we find ourselves sharing stories of illness and recovery, loss and, if we’re lucky, the discovery of new ways of enjoying life even with unexpected limitations.

A former colleague reaches out to tell the story of a stroke that affected his vision, language, and balance. He explains how he had to teach himself to recognize the letters of the alphabet again, how his stroke ended his career, and how he finds joy in his family and his garden even in the midst of all that he has lost.

Loss comes in many forms. An unseen companion that stalks us through all the seasons of our lives, loss is something we’d rather not think about, especially when everything is going our way.

In recent years, our collective losses have accumulated with the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rending of our social fabric by what has come to be known as the culture wars.

Stories, too, come in many forms including long strings of text messages that pinged on my phone for days from an old friend lamenting the state of our economy and government. No matter how I responded, my replies always missed the mark. There was a story here, but it didn’t take shape until my friend explained how sad and disappointed he felt to witness the erosion of the ideals and values that first drew him here from his native land a lifetime ago.

Sometimes, all it takes is an afternoon in the sunshine with a trusted companion to get a story going. I always knew that a certain friend became a high school teacher after his sporting goods store fell on hard times and he had to close the doors for good. I had heard parts of his story as they were happening, interrupted by years of silence as our lives unfolded miles apart and resumed whenever we were able to spend time together. Unlike a movie that you could pause and later return to the last frame you had seen, the reels of our lives kept running, and when we didn’t have time to catch up, we simply started from where we were at the moment.

Then one day with the afternoon spread out before us, we sat together in the park, conversation flowed easily between us and soon my friend was telling the story of his career as a teacher of students with special needs.

There was a deep sense of satisfaction in the way he described the joys and challenges of motivating tough kids through the simple rituals of respect that are too often neglected in settings where discipline is everything. Giving students choices, asking not ordering them to follow the rules, praising their accomplishments, and acknowledging them in the hallways are all simple courtesies, but it was this man’s conscious and consistent application of these practices that made a positive difference in so many of their lives. After he retired, a student committee successfully petitioned the administration to invite him back to give the commencement address.

These stories of illness and recovery, loss and acceptance, disappointment, struggle, and pride in a job well done live in all of us in the particular version that shapes each of our lives.

The ancient Greeks said that every one of our lives is perfect simply because it is ours alone. Psychologists tell us that when we are able to believe this, we are well on the way to achieving integrity or a sense of wholeness. We get there one story at a time and every now and then need to gather these episodes into the larger narrative that we are building. We do this by telling our stories, looking always for someone who will listen. We are the teller and the listener both, made more aware of what we are doing as advancing years cry out for a summation even as we look for more to add.

People tell me stories, but that may have little to do with me. It’s just what people do.

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