The Power of Story: Telling the Truth, Channeling Tolstoy, and Surviving Rape

 

This past week I had the honor of talking and emceeing at TEDxXavierUniversity. But before last Thursday night's main event, for the past few weeks or so, I've have had the opportunity to work with the students at Xavier University to help the other six speakers prepare for their own talks and develop their own stories. I was asked to listen, respond, and ultimately weave together a common thread between the six talks, which all centered around the theme of decoding deception, or to look at things a bit more positively, the search for truth.

This post is, though by not any means complete, an account of my brief introduction and discussion of the truth before the talk. (Full disclosure: I usually black out during public speaking. And by black out, I mean, my mouth moves, words come out, but I have no idea what I am saying or doing. And at TEDx I was especially nervous to speak this time because it's 1) Not every day that your every word is recorded and 2) I don't usually talk about my experience as a rape survivor at work.

Now I am not secretive about it. In fact, for the past several years I have spoken about it to groups of women on various occasions. I mostly talk about its impact on my health, mental health, and life. However, getting up in front of colleagues, students, and yes, even one of my bosses, and telling them about the time I was raped, was not easy, but necessary. Absolutely necessary, because as I listened to the six speakers practice and encouraged each one of them to "tell a story," a real and truthful story, I realized I needed to as well. In short, I needed to, because story and my quest for the truth saved my life. And I believe story has the power to change other lives as well--maybe even save them.

Without further intro, I'll just share what I hoped to say at TEDxXavierUniversity, but probably didn't, because I have no idea what actually came out of this mouth (wouldn't be the first time):

I suppose the students asked me to speak because of what I do for a living. As a writer, my essential quest is the search for truth. The vehicle I use to get there is story.

But, the truth, as we all know, is a complex thing. We don't all get there in the same way. In fact, some of us many never arrive in the same place at all. In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy said this about truth: 

“No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.”

I want you to chew on this for a minute with me:  

No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.

No truth presents itself to two people in the same way.

Tolstoy's not saying there is no truth, he's saying it's difficult for two people, no matter how aligned, similar, or for that fact, living in the same house, working in the same office, going to the same church, or driving on the same road, to experience anything in the same way. We all have our own biases, our own experiences, our blind spots, our own versions of the story.  It's the fundamental crux of humanity: Not one of us sees things exactly the same way. Our own point of view, our own blinders, our own perceptions, our own lack of understanding, our own motives, and even, our own imperfect memories, muck everything up.

So, then, can truth ever be attained?

I believe as a writer, it is precisely through storytelling, we find the essential truths. It's through storytelling, we discover our own humanity. We learn to see from another's point of view. I even believe in the power of the untrue stories we tell ourselves as much as I am of the true ones. Because I believe the stories we tell ourselves have power and truth in them--even if they're lies at first.

I should know. I've used story to save my life on more than one occasion. 

When I was twenty-two, like most young people, I thought the whole world mine for the taking. I got in my turquoise boat of Mercury Sable and headed west to get my fully funded Masters Degree from the University of Nebraska. My music was cranking the cassette tape of the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines and I were singing "Wide Open Spaces" at the top of our lungs together as I drove down 1-80 at a cool 85 miles per hour.

That was until, of course,  my car broke down in a remote town in Illinois--as a car is apt to do hauling a thousand pounds of books. Lucky for me, a man offered to help arrange to get my car fixed and rent me a car so I could get to my first day of class. He seemed kind and was definitely good looking. A Midwestern, blonde, blue-eyed charmer, he said smooth lines, like Baby, you can trust me.

The day I returned the rental car to his office and picked up my now fixed car, he took me out for a bite to eat. One beer later, I had no idea what I was saying, where I was. And before I knew it or fully understood what was happening, I was in a house, far away from home, in the middle of nowhere, in a town that I didn’t the name of, in a place I had never been. It was dark and I couldn’t see—save for a few cracks of light that came through the blinds. In and out of consciousness, I realized at some point, perhaps when he was telling me what a whore I was, that I deserved it, that I wanted it, and all sorts of other vile things, that he was raping me.

I didn’t know it then, but story would save my life that day. I went inside myself. I imagined I was not there. I told myself a series of stories--lies--if you will. 

And eventually, I told myself I was strong, even though I didn’t feel it.

I told myself he would not break me, even though it felt like I was already broken.

I told myself he would not win, even though I felt like a loser.

The more I told myself these things, the more resolute, the more awake, and more determined I was to escape, to run, to get far away, and to get help.

And all the while I told myself: You will not destroy me. You will not.

That story got me through that day. And the story I told myself over and over again, day after day night after night, year after year ultimately shaped who I am.

Because the moment you tell yourself that you alone are responsible for your own story, your own truth, not anyone else, nothing can touch you. No pain. No heartache. No rapist. No oppressor. No sexist comment. No malicious or selfish behavior.

No lie. No deception.

All of us--right now--are telling ourselves a story of our own. We tell others stories about ourselves, and sometimes we tell them so often that we believe them.

Stories are powerful. Stories tell the truth of our lives, because what we tell ourselves and others manifests itself.

Story has the power to change and transform.

So what is the story you're telling yourself? What do you believe to be true? What if you could change your story?  

I can't wait to share with you the stories of these amazing 6 speakers. Each one has their own version of what they know to be true. 

(As soon as their videos goes live, I will post here.) 

The amazing Xavier University TEdx team and all the 6 speakers who shared their stories and "ideas worth spreading" with us.

The amazing Xavier University TEdx team and all the 6 speakers who shared their stories and "ideas worth spreading" with us.

 

 

 

3 Steps to Having Everything: Eat S@#t. Fall in Love. Do the Work.

Besides being a writer, a blogger, and mom, I have a day job too. It just so happens that I work in higher education at a Jesuit University. Though I work mainly in an administrative role at a Center for Innovation, I get to teach storytelling and Design Thinking. (BTW, Design Thinking is simply another way of saying, I teach an approach to problem solving, critical thinking, and empathizing with others). Design Thinking helps creatives be creative, and it helps people who don't think they're creative access their demiurgic selves through a deliberate process. It helps one empathize, ideate, create, communicate, and finally, test out new ideas and processes. Simply put, I get to spend my days helping others "figure stuff out." I work with students, faculty, staff, corporate clients, startups, and all sorts of neat people who are bursting with passion and enthusiasm, but happen to be wrestling with defining, containing, or expressing their big ideas. 

It's, in a word, awesome. At least it's awesome, when I get to do what it is I love to do. 

Granted we all have to eat the proverbial "shit sandwich" that Buddhists (and now Elizabeth Gilbert) so wisely speak of.  Yes, we all know the shit-sandwich well. These are the tasks that one must bear down, bite through, and get over with before getting to the good stuff. No birth comes without the sweaty, horrendous, bloody final push.  No adorable baby comes without dirty diapers. No work of art comes without cleaning brushes. No decision gets made without the dreaded committee meeting.  No marathons get run without training on hills. You get the picture.

We all have to do things we don't like.  Me? What are the shit sandwiches I have to chew on? The usual. (I'm pretty sure no one likes to do them.) Emailing. Processing paperwork and invoices. Navigating office politics. Meetings. (And let's not forget the added double-decker shit sandwich that I as a women get to eat.) Yes, like most women, on daily basis we all must contend with (inside and outside of our institutions) big egos, misogyny, the random sexist comment, and still for many of us, unequal pay, and higher work expectations. And like most women, I have to bear down and bite through all the b.s. every day and serve it up with a smile. YUM! More please!  Lest I be perceived as ungrateful, angry, "difficult," or the dreaded "B" word. 

So what makes eating the shit sandwich possible? Bearable? 

The answer is simple: I am in love.

What? How did we go from eating shit to falling love? 

Let me explain. One of the perks of working at a Jesuit college is everyone is drunk on what I lovingly refer to as Je-ju (Jesuit Juice.) Students, faculty, and staff are well-versed in all sorts of mindful and meaningful quotes and practices that promote the examined life. One of my favorite quotes was just read aloud during a student award ceremony. The quote by Father Pedro Arrupe says, quite beautifully, 

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
- Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

The answer is I am in love with learning. I am in love with curiosity. I am in love with art. I am in love with creativity. I am in love with students, their passion, their curiosity, their eagerness to learn too. I am in love with the learners mindset. I am in love with books. I am in love with writing. I am in love with others' minds, which I learn so much from. I am in love with photography. I am in love with life. I race out of bed each morning to read my favorite books, write my 3-5 pages, connect with the friends who I love on social media. I spend my evenings in love with my kids, with my husband, and my home. I am amazed daily by the incredible students I meet (like my intern Ese, who just won the Student Employee of the Year), the trees outside that are blooming, the poetry I read each day, the food I get to eat and the coffee I drink. I spend each night before I close my eyes counting my blessings--thinking of all the people, place, books, ideas and moments I was able to experience during the day. 

By knowing what I love, and spending time with the things love, I have, as Arrupe so brilliantly pointed out, decided everything. I have decided what is important, what matters, and what I will fill up the days of my life with, what I won't, and what I will put up with (the shit sandwiches, if you will). I am lucky that I have more love than shit in my life. But, I'd venture to say it is a bit more than luck. It takes work--hard work--to fill yourself up with good things and things you're in love with. It means making some hard decisions. It means putting down the phone at 9 p.m. and going to bed. It means getting up early. It means attending the meetings and completing the paperwork. It means showing up, every day. It means being a professional. 

I often wonder, when I hear people complain about their lives, why don't they just don't fall in love. Why don't they do what they love? "I don't have the time," they say. "I can't," they say. And I understand. I was like them once. I too was once afraid to admit what I loved. It's a scary thing. It takes courage to go after the life you love. It takes strength and fortitude to bite down on the shit sandwich, in order to get to the good parts. It takes dedication. It takes work. 

But, it's worth it. 

Because, it's your life, we're are talking about. YOUR LIFE. Let me repeat: YOUR LIFE. If your life is is more shit than love, then what are you doing with your day? How can you change it? Or better yet, ask yourself before you do anything: Do I love this? Or, do I love (x,y,  or z enough) to eat this shit sandwich and do the necessary work?

If the answer is no, then get out there and find out what you love: It will decide everything.

Everything.