by Kaleb Eisele
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” —Muriel Rukeyser If you’ve been paying attention to the rising trends in youth culture, you’ve likely noticed some patterns in the things they care about. Maybe you’ve seen photos of young people holding protest signs or seen videos of them speak- ing out on subjects like environmentalism, social justice, or income inequality. The inundation of content from the 24- hour news cycle can be overwhelming, but a closer look at the values carried by the youth might give us some clarity as to why these things matter so much to today’s young people. In my work I’ve interviewed over 300 people, with the majority being Seventh-day Adventists under 40 years old. As I’ve spent time with them, I’ve noticed a gospel truth that seems to guide many of the trends we see in their voices— concern for their neighbors. Behind social justice is care for the marginalized neighbor; behind environmentalism is care for both humanity and life beyond us. Now more than ever before, young people are entering the world with access to the stories of suffering from a wide array of people groups. Seeing from this perspective, however, can be difficult unless we take the time to intentionally seek to diversify stories we are exposing ourselves to. Stories can encourage many of the meaningful conversations that we desperately need to be having in our church—conversations on how to relate to each other in the healthiest ways.
Human beings are far more complex than we often give them credit for. When we talk to each other, we learn external facts—what kind of work someone does or what kinds of activities someone enjoys. We rarely even scratch the surface of the deep, personal experiences that other people carry around with them every day. We often don’t take time to understand how the things people have lived through are affecting them.
As a professional storyteller, you would be surprised at how often I get messages like this one: “I’ve known this young man for years and still hadn’t heard all that.” How well do we know each other? How well do we want to?
When you get into a rhythm of interviewing lots of people, you start learning that some questions work better than others. Here’s a question that’s become my absolute favorite over the years, I frame it like this: “What’s one event in your life that changed you?”
I love this question for several reasons. First, it’s perfect for story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end built into the question itself. What were you like before? What happened? What changed?
I also like this question because, while it asks for something specific–the event that changed the person–it covers a massive amount of territory. It can be positive or negative, it can just as easily lead to a conversion story as to a story of the death of a loved one or a career change.
Understanding each other takes time. It rarely happens naturally. The challenge for each of us if we want to deepen our relationships and grow as a community comes down to intentionality. We actually have to seek out stories. We have to listen without needing to push our own story in that moment. We have to be curious about each other. I think part of the problem is that we haven’t handled this idea of authentic storytelling well. There’s pressure to condense our stories, to not take up too much of another person’s time.
I challenge you to take some time to think about the stories that make up your life. Reflect on all of the countless experiences that have built and formed you. And after that, recognize that the same is true for every person you will ever meet. No person is a single thing. No story is a single story.
It isn’t that our intentions are bad. Deep down, most people I’ve met seem to have a longing for deeper connection to other human beings. I think we just haven’t learned that in order to know each other well, we need to create space for listening. Imagine you’re outside and you’re tired of walking. If there’s no bench near you, do you sit down? Probably not. Most of us will keep on walking until we find something that’s meant for us to sit on. We use the spaces that have been created for us to do things. It’s the same for stories. That’s why long car rides and camping trips and late nights in someone else’s home are the places we end up having deep conversations with each other. It’s why, when I share a deep story about someone on our Facebook page, that person’s friends will often say they’ve never heard it before. Because we haven’t intentionally created the spaces to share our stories.
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Why am I here?” Maybe you’re one of those existential people that look at life from a bird’s-eye view and ask it. Maybe you’re asking it about the place you live or the place you work. But have you ever asked it about church? Religion? Why are we here? Why all the meetings and institutional structure? If salvation comes from believing in God, why do we need church at all?
I think we need to hear each other. And I don’t mean I think it’s just a good idea, I mean I think it crucial to our wellbeing. I mean that living life together, deepening our connections to each other is a spiritual thing.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
Even Jesus himself modeled this for us with his life. He didn’t just come to earth and head straight to the cross. He spent time building relationships with people. He spent time listening to them and giving them his attention. He spoke to the specifics of their lives. In fact, it was because Jesus spent time with particular people—people his religious leaders told everyone to stay away from—that some people hated Jesus in the first place.
Take a look at Mark 2:15. “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Do you see the pattern here? Each time people said, “Why are you listening to them? They have nothing important to say. Their words are not valuable.” And each time, Jesus intentionally created a new space between himself and other human beings. Even though Jesus was God, over and over he took the time to stop. To ask. To listen. Over and over again he countered the societal system. He went against the will of his society—pushed back against the prejudices of the world around him. He sat with tax collectors and sinners, with Samaritans and women and children; he touched lepers and the demon possessed, and even healed the Roman Centurion’s servant.
I want to suggest that our capacity to love is increased by our capacity to listen. If we only listen to respond, if we don’t actively look for the voices that are being silenced, if we’re so focused on our own lives and day-to-day burdens that we don’t have time for anyone else, I believe we hinder our ability to love like Jesus did.
Stories matter because they shape our reality. And today and every day, I want my reality to include a deeper, more meaningful connection to the people around me. Because the most important things in this life aren’t about money. They aren’t about titles or power or a good job. They’re about relationships. They’re about recreating that spark of hope that Jesus brought to the downtrodden people around him every single day.
–Kaleb Eisele is editor of Humans of Adventism, a twice-weekly online storytelling platform that features true-life experiences of Seventh-day Adventists. Since launching in 2017, Humans of Adventism has released over 250 stories. The platform aims to present the diversity of people and perspectives living under the Seventh-day Adventist denominational umbrella, to spark conversations, help build bridges, and to tear down relational walls within the church. Email him at: [email protected]