Some people are living story prompts. Their words are full of supposedly casual references that really plead you to pursue an explanation. They are full of stories to be told, and they are ready and waiting for someone to hear those stories.
We all know people whose words are sticker-bur complaints. Every time you talk to them, they insert self-pitying, mysterious references, just to make you ask what they mean. They release the sticker burs into the wind to be spread to everyone around them, and sooner or later people stop asking. People get tired of having their life sucked away by those burs.
But living story prompts are different. They don’t want to load you with filthy complaints— God knows they’ve endured enough of it themselves! They want to share their stories with you because they’ve come to trust you. They want to open up the heart of their past and share with you the dirty yet beautiful treasure inside. You only have to do one thing:
Last week, I was sitting in my math classroom, waiting for class to start, and a girl on crutches joined my table. The four of us sitting there struck up a conversation about injuries. One classmate, a man in his 40’s, mentioned that he had been medically discharged from the military. I asked how long he had been in the military, and after he replied “18 years” I expected the conversation to dissolve into awkward silence.
But he kept going. He briefly explained where he had been stationed, and how he had ended up here. The way he talked invited and welcomed the listener to ask more questions. The best story prompters, after all, make you want to build a campfire in the middle of the classroom, sit cross-legged on the floor, lean forward, and listen.
Since I expected hesitancy to talk about his military career, I was surprised.
And then he mentioned Afghanistan, and the wound he had gotten there, which had gotten him medically discharged. It was the clearest story prompt, awaiting a simple risk— two simple words.
But I chose not to take it. Maybe I was afraid of bringing up the painful subject. Stories can hurt, when they teach you what you have and what you don’t have. Risk takes hurt.
Maybe it was because class was about to start, and it wasn’t the time for such a story. In any case, the subject was dropped, and polynomials and quadratics were picked up.
But my conversation with my classmate introduced another storyteller, when he mentioned that he had a big scar on his chest from his injury.
Scars tell stories.
One of the favorite sayings of my English teacher is “Every scar tells a story”. (Okay, am I the only one whose English teacher has tons of favorite phrases, sayings and quotes that he repeats all the time?)
Take, for example, this scar on my knee.
I would love to say that it has an exciting back-story involving vicious lemurs, a raging jungle river, and rusty scimitars. But, in all honestly, this little dark patch has a pretty stupid story.
I was participating in The Color Run with some friends, running barefoot. I was having fun getting my bare feet all sorts of pretty colors, and somehow forgot about the metal divider to my left. My toes snagged on it. Trip–fall–splat. Now red was added to those pretty colors, along with a nasty, scraped knee and two swollen toes. I finished the race, and we celebrated the wound with some memorable shots.
See? That wasn’t the most amazing story in the world, but it probably caught your attention more than the rest of my ramblings. Stories stand out to us for a reason. We’re created to love stories, because they’re woven into our beings.
And the stories told by those scars: yes, they may just tell how proud, irrational, cowardly, or downright stupid we’ve been, but thank God for them, because we all need to hear about each other’s failures. They remind us that we aren’t the only real humans on this planet.
So, learn to listen for people’s story prompts: their earnest pleas, their outstretched and open hands, their hands on the doorknobs of their hearts, ready to open up the doors. Then have the courage to ask. Let the inky fingerprints of those stories be written on your hearts. Learn from them, spread them, and never forget them.
Do not be afraid of their scars, and do not be ashamed of your own. Just knock. And for the sake of everything reasonable, don’t be afraid that your question will offend them! Look, if they brought it up, they aren’t afraid to talk about it!!
Ask their scars, and welcome in the answers that will press their inky fingers all over the story-filled book of your heart.