intersection – noun | in·ter·sec·tion | \ˌin-tər-ˈsek-shənˌ\
: the place or point where two or more things come together; especially : the place where two or more streets meet or cross each other
: the act or process of crossing or intersecting
I’ve long been a storyteller. Fueled partly by a vivid imagination and partly by the enjoyment, from a young age, of hearing myself speak, I was a child who often got in trouble because I wouldn’t–couldn’t, it seemed–stop talking. Short of including every detail, I felt the talking couldn’t cease. I’m still telling stories, though often with my fingers on a keyboard instead of with my incessant chatter, and often, I am loathe to include every twist and turn exactly as events transpired, with only one or two exaggerations for good measure.
I like to hear a good story, too, especially humorous ones. One of my brothers and his family are known to save up stories just so they can hear me guffaw and hoot and occasionally snort liquid out of my nose at the punchline. I try to be patient when hearing a story a second time, only occasionally prompting the teller with the details of the original telling. Maybe they will remember a new detail they previously forgot. And when my dad tells me over the phone, “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell you …” Well, those are my favorite, full of backstory and context and with just the right amount of dramatic tension leading up to the punchline.
Occasionally, though, someone will tell me a story that cuts to the core of me. In a bad way. And I’ve struggled to understand what is at the heart of my aversion or offense. Usually, a story poorly told would get me thinking, wondering how often I had done it to others, since I wasn’t sure exactly what “it” was.
The situation would unfold sort of like this: when I was single and still single and still single for years and years and years, occasionally, someone who had gotten married in her mid-20s would tell a story that began with, “I know exactly how you feel … ” Then she would recount how she met Mr. Right. In her 20s. And there I was, still in my late 30s. She didn’t know exactly how I felt. Or when I was going through treatment for stage four cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, repeated hospitalizations, facing odds of less than 20 percent that I would survive two years, another woman I know was diagnosed with stage 1 of the same type of cancer, for which only a laparoscopic surgery was required, facing odds of greater than 90 percent that she would keep on living as if nothing had ever happened. She would regularly tell me bits of her story, starting with, “I know exactly how you feel.” Only she didn’t know.
In both cases, I had no problem with hearing their stories. I welcomed them, in fact. It was the comparison that bothered me, the assumption that they knew exactly how I felt when there was a large difference between our situations. It was a difference of degree, though, and with slight changes, those stories could have been told in a way that might have really encouraged me. “I was only in my early 20s, but I still needed hope to believe I would get married. There’s hope for you, too.” Or “Even though my cancer is just stage one, I know a little about what it’s like to wait for test results. I can only imagine what you are going through.”
In telling my own stories, acknowledging these differences of degree can drive me to better storytelling. I can become more compassionate; my stories can inspire rather than injure. But sometimes the differences are beyond degree. Here’s an example.
I know a man who lives every day in a wheelchair after an accident when he was only 18. He faces every day knowing that he has to maneuver in and out of his chair in order to do his job, play with his children, care for his wife. His entire future is shaped by that chair. He tells of meeting a guy who came up to him and said, “I know exactly how you feel. I broke my leg once and had to use crutches for a few weeks.”
On first reading, this error in storytelling here feels the same as in my previous two examples. It feels like an unacknowledged difference of degree. But what I see now, with a hat-tip to Wendell Berry for a new way of telling it, is that the differences between the stories of the man with the broken leg and my friend who sits in a wheelchair are not of degree but of kind. Differences in degree exist on the same axis; they can be scaled, expanded, compared. Differences in kind are on different axes, sometimes different planes, and a point of connection between the two requires an intersection. They share properties, but they are not, and will never be, the same.
I don’t think the man with the broken leg told his story to injure my friend in the wheelchair. Quite the contrary. I think he was trying to make a connection. He just failed to recognize that the experiences were fundamentally different. Often, these stories, too, can be adjusted to fit the circumstance by acknowledging the limits of similarity. “I broke my leg once and struggled with using crutches for two weeks. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to use a wheelchair every day. How do you cope?” And then sometimes, these stories that are so different in kind just are not helpful at all.
Though these differences in our stories have far-reaching application, I’ve been thinking about them particularly as they relate to wading into conversations about race and racism. I believe people from all racial backgrounds need to tell more of their stories and to listen when others speak. But we need to be careful both in the hearing and the telling because our stories and experiences are different. Some are different only by degree, and we need to scale and adjust and compare carefully so as to encourage and empathize. We can’t know exactly how someone else feels, but we might come close. But many of our stories are different by kind; they have been lived on different axes or different planes. We can’t even imagine how someone else feels or experiences life. While our experiences will never be the same, we can seek the similarities that form points of intersection. It will take work. Hard work. But hopefully, eventually, we will form enough dots that we can connect them together to create something beautiful and new among us.
What’s YOUR word of the week? Drop it into the comments section, or share it on this week’s Facebook post. If you post about your word on your blog, please slip the link into a comment below so I can stop by and join you.