A little girl, out of nowhere, begins seizing, and the seizures escalate crazily, despite medication, until the doctors recommend looking into brain surgery. Will she qualify? Will she ever be seizure-free? What will it cost her and her family?
Books have been written with less plot than this, but this is not a book. It is our life, and it is our story.
But there is a huge problem with living a story, a problem I grapple with every time I’m in public. I thought of it more frequently over Christmas, when we attended various family reunions and met people we don’t often see.
The trouble with having a story is that one is tempted to tell it and retell it, ad nauseam.
Have you ever met someone who was always telling her story? Perhaps the chapters varied in length and drama, but every conversation with her seemed to focus on her life. It didn’t matter what you discussed with her; somehow she brought it back around to herself.
I don’t want to be someone like that, but I fear I am. People like this don’t even know they are doing it—at least, I don’t think so. It can happen by default, since the only story I can really tell is my own. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of my life.
It’s also easy to think that people are hanging on every word I say, but let’s be honest here: Most of us can talk about our lives past the point of interestingness.
I believe I am safe here, in this space. If you don’t want to hear my story, you can click on that little red X up in the right-hand corner and obliterate me. But if I am talking face-to-face with you, you cannot so easily make me vanish. I worry that people will start looking for the nearest escape route every time I come into view.
Perhaps I am over-concerned about this, but I would rather be that than boring. To prevent a complete descent into boringness, I have composed a mental checklist (which I often fail to consult, but I’m working on it). When I’m talking with someone, this is what I try to remember.
1. Ask about her life.
This is the hardest one for me. I am not good at small talk. It doesn’t readily occur to me to ask someone the breezy questions that keep a conversation flowing. How was your week? Did you get your garden planted? Have you adjusted to the school schedule? Too often, I wait for her to ask me the questions, and then, of course, the conversation is focused on me. I need to do better at taking conversational initiative.
There is a trap even in asking. I have found myself asking someone the questions I wish they would ask me, hoping they would turn it around to me. I need to ask out of genuine interest and love, not out of a selfish desire to eventually talk about myself.
2. Have a conversation without mentioning my story.
Can someone ask me about my week without me bringing up my story? My world consists of more than epilepsy. I still cook, clean, entertain, teach, love, launder, discipline, and learn. I should talk about those things, too.
It’s not healthy to be consumed by one subject alone. I know it looks here like I think of nothing but epilepsy, but once our story slows down, I have a whole list of posts to tackle, twenty-five, at least, with more ideas occurring all the time. We’ll get there, eventually, and I look forward to it.
3. Change the subject deliberately.
Because our story is unfolding and of general interest, it’s common for someone to quickly ask about it soon after meeting or greeting me. Can I answer her questions without going on and on and on—and then quietly redirect the conversation? Without feeling like I’m robbing myself of air time?
4. Meet a stranger without bringing up my story.
When I meet someone who doesn’t know I have A Story, I try to keep it to myself, particularly if our meeting is brief or likely a one-time event. This has become a litmus test for me. If I see every stranger as a set of fresh ears for my story, then I am thinking about myself way too much.
There is an odd sort of pleasure in denying myself the privilege of telling my story to a stranger. I realize this could be overdone. Other people, even strangers, are interested in my life, just as I should be in theirs. But there is a difference between a conversation naturally turning in a certain direction and a conversation being forcibly directed toward myself by me. I need to know that I can keep my story to myself, if necessary. It’s good for me.
Do I always succeed in having balanced conversations? Absolutely not, I’m sorry to say. This is something I’m endeavoring to grow in.
So if you meet me and I bore you, I apologize. Go ahead and change the subject for me if I seem unable to.
Thank you for allowing me to tell my story here. But even an interesting story can outstay its welcome. I hope to be able to tell our story and then move on. Gracefully.
Have you ever struggled with over-telling your story? What has helped you find balance? How do you encourage others to tell their stories?