Nathan Ahearne wonders if we are really making the effort to see each other - even if we think we're reading someone like a book.
I’ve always been captivated by the idea of "reading someone like a book," describing someone as "an open book" and the warning to not "judge a book by its cover." The thought of "reading people" intrigues me, partly from my curiosity in the crossover between psychology, anthropology and spirituality, and also from my preoccupation with studying motivations, aspirations and fears to try and understand where people are coming from. In getting to know people, I’ve smugly thought that I knew where "the story" was going, only to be completely shocked within the turn of a page.
It’s important to read a book from the beginning, to know the backstory, the character development and to even consider the previous volumes in the series. Sometimes we want to skip ahead, we desperately want to flip through the hard parts of the story and move to the next chapter where the story brightens.
Some people are private and only share part of their story, revealing just a couple of recent pages and hiding previous chapters. It gives the feeling of engaging with a magazine or catalogue, a neat summary of a life without the nuances of struggle, pain and joy. I’ve met people who seem to have pages ripped out or whole chapters missing. No doubt there are very good reasons for this redaction. Jonathan Browning suggests others need to completely rewrite their past to help make sense of the here and now. In his book, titled Do you SEE me? Jonathan explains, “the way we tell out stories not only reveal our identity but also how we feel about ourselves.”
It takes time to sit and listen to someone, to genuinely know and love the person. I wonder how many stories we can hold within our libraries? Some people love to collect stories, they follow the lives of strangers (snippets in social media) feeling a connection, without ever making contact with the hardcopy. These commentaries are similar to the translation of novels to Hollywood cinema; the details often don’t translate, it has breadth of the story without the depth, a shallow representation devoid of the effort it takes to truly know a person.
The stories we choose to share about ourselves (particularly online) can be reduced to curated quotes, a brief synopsis and meagre review that reveals little of ourselves and sits alongside the noise of a thousand other stories. Do we even take the time to click the ‘See more’ button or do we just scroll past people in our lives?
It’s tempting to read half the story, to avoid investment and move to the next attention-seeking headline before fully digesting what’s been revealed. The dehumanising effect of online culture can lead to people being perceived as almost fictional characters. Social media has become a democratic culture of collective shouting, advocating for justice on one hand and just as quickly cancelling people, muting voices, and writing characters out of the narrative.
Jesus loved getting to know the story of people. He helped them to share their stories, creating safe places like Zacchaeus’s table, where he could reveal his whole story. Interestingly, this wasn’t about Jesus understanding his mind or heart more fully. In many cases we know Jesus had already "read the book." Jesus understood the importance of encouraging people to own their story and invited them to rewrite the narrative with a pen of love.
It’s important to avoid the temptation of writing chapters for other people, especially our children. When I look back at family photos and the activities we did together, the most exciting memories were co-written by my children. Rather than structured experiences like Christmas or trips to theme parks, our fondest moments emerged when we imaginatively created (or lost) the plot on camping trips, in the snow or mucking around in the backyard.
Brené Brown says, “when we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” I don’t believe we are characters arranged in some pre-determined plot, but that’s not to say that I can’t see God’s co-authorship in my life. I notice His presence in the twists and turns, the opening and closing of doors and the golden threads that weave through the paragraphs of my Story.
Copyright 2021 Nathan Ahearne
Images: black and white photo copyright 2021 Nathan Ahearne; others, Canva Pro
About the Author
Nathan Ahearne's faith journey has helped to shape the person he is today as husband, father, teacher and formator of young people. His vocation and faith are strengthened and nourished by those he encounters in service and contemplation. Nathan is a creative thinker and likes to roll up his sleeves and see projects through to completion. He is a John 10:10 fan. Read more at Expressions of Interest.