History is written by the victors.
I am an enormous history geek. If you get me talking about Theodore Roosevelt you’d better have an hour to spare, I cried multiple times reading Team of Rivals and I have been known to read the Bill of Rights for kicks (more so during some administrations than others.) I have very strong opinions about voting in person (the stickers! the curmudgeonly old dude who checks you in! Civic duty is FUN!) and our family tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence on July 4th is right up there with leaving out milk and cookies for Santa. After all, history is our story. It’s the story of us.
In one of my favorite books, Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell writes about historical relics. She recounts her tour of sites having to do with the assassinations of US Presidents. It doesn’t SOUND funny, but it is. Anyway, she visits all of these museums and historical places off the beaten path and writes about seeing things like the bloodstained pillow on which Abe Lincoln lay his dying head.
Why would anyone want to look at such a thing, you ask? It’s gruesome, right? Well, it tells a story. It tells part of the story we don’t think about- and maybe don’t want to. Our president didn’t die in that theater. He died nine hours later. He suffered. That pillow tells the story of his suffering. That’s why it’s hard to look at.
Objects like this are historical relics.
A historical relic is defined as:
“a surviving memorial of something past. an object having interest by reason of its age or its association with the past: a surviving trace of something”
Our stories are the surviving trace of our experiences. They may be the one thing we own, in the end. Our stories are the one thing that cannot be taken from us once we have claimed them. We determine the value of our stories. We decide if they are trash or treasure.
Something treasured can be terrible. Treasure can be ugly, and hard to look at- and then? That’s when it is most important to honor it. To look right at it, unflinchingly. You honor someone’s soul far more when you compassionately behold that which is dark and twisty than when you admire the beautiful parts. The beautiful parts are easy to revere, but to listen respectfully while someone shares the scarred and broken parts of their past? To witness it with mercy and no judgment? That is a gift beyond measure.
Brené Brown says people need to earn the right to hear your stories. I sort of agree with that. No one is entitled to hear your story. Your story must be given freely and received humbly. Our stories are sacred ground, and should be treated as such. I believe when someone makes the decision to share their story with you, you need to receive it quietly, and reverently, and with gratitude.
When we pay someone the honor of sharing our story with them, it is a gift of the highest order. We unearth the relics of our past and dust them off. We mine our history for pieces of our narrative that explain the mystery of who we are, that bring us into sharper focus. When I tell you my story, I offer these things up to you and say, LOOK. These memories are pieces of my history, and when put together in this way, they make up the person I am today.
When we share our truth with another person, when we make ourselves vulnerable in that way, it gives other people permission to do the same. It makes it a safe space for honesty. It tells the other person, I have skin in the game now. I’m emotionally invested enough to share this with you. Our stories are the way we connect with one another.
I had an offer from a website to have In Others’ Words published under their banner. It’s a great website with much higher circulation than I could hope to reach here. The reason that I said no came down to He Wrote It Down. I have a funny relationship with that essay. It’s based on a very important event in my life. It was a powerful experience that I shared with my cousin and in many ways it transformed our lives.
Here’s the thing about that post. I don’t really think of it as mine anymore. The story is mine and it is Mary’s, but the post is not. I am protective of it, which is why I wouldn’t allow it to be absorbed into another website, but I’m not possessive of it. I couldn’t give it away because it really isn’t mine to give.
About once a week I get an email from someone who is just discovering that post. It is interesting for me to encounter their reaction to it now that I have some distance between me and both the event and the aftermath of the post going viral.
I feel as though that post has a life of its own. That post is alive. It is out in the world doing important work. It has a job. At this point, it has very little to do with me. It is my job to safeguard a piece of writing that has become important to many people. It is my privilege to respond to people who have a strong reaction to it and who might need someone to bear witness to their story. It is absolutely my honor to do that, and I take it very seriously.
Our stories are made precious by the way we treat them. I think the stories we keep tucked away are treasures. We make them precious by telling them rarely, and to a select few. It’s one reason I have decided to talk openly and often about my childhood abuse. It is not precious to me. I don’t want to give it a place of honor, with special lighting and restricted admittance. I don’t want you to wear white gloves while you handle it.
When I hid my story away behind velvet ropes, I gave it enormous power. My story was being told every single day in the way that I lived my life. My story was being told by my abuser, though. Not by me. I was letting him be the author of the story of me. The moment I stopped keeping quiet about my abuse, the very moment I started telling my story publicly, I could feel the vise grip it had on me loosening. With every story that came flooding back in response, the bill of goods that I’d been sold, that I was alone in it, was revealed for the lie that it is.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Someone hurt her. Her light was stolen. Not by a monster. There are no monsters in this story. She was hurt by a man. A man who undoubtedly had his own story. She tucked her story away for a very long time. Alone in the darkness, it ate her alive. One day, she reunited with another little girl, and, holding hands, they told their story together. Then they told it again, and again, and again. Every time they told it, the story’s hold on them lessened. Every time they said it out loud, every time someone said “Me too,” they stepped a little further out of the darkness and into the warm sunlight of community.
Our community that stands together and says,
“LOOK. This happened. This is our story. But we are more than what happened to us. We are still here. We survived and we are telling our stories. Victoriously.”