*During my senior year of college, I interned at a refugee resettlement agency, helping refugees to find employment in the United States.*
We were looking for a story and could do no better than his – he who fled over an ocean looking for peace, arriving in this country with nothing but the clothes on his back and a fierce work ethic. He was perfect for our purposes – a model refugee. He works now at the sort of job where one might wear a tie.
I wrote the story based on glowing second-hand accounts and sent it by email asking his permission to share it with our partners and sponsors – they would like his story, we knew it. We hoped he would be proud.
Several hours later, his wife replied. Please change the names, she said. Change the identifying information. Do not say how poor we were. Do not say I am still earning my GED.
I was shocked. The story of triumph I thought I wrote was to her a story of shame. She read the story that I wrote, and did not claim it. That was not the story of her family that she wanted to tell.
I don’t know why I was shocked, as surprised as I had been when the woman in a rural village wouldn’t pose for a picture until she had changed her shirt and put on lipstick – as surprised as I had been to see that someone without running water would not only own lipstick but would care how she looked in it.
As if those of us with social media accounts, with our carefully curated humanity, somehow hold a monopoly on embarrassment and pride, caring what strangers think about us, wanting to be seen in the best light.
I started to wonder how many of the crying children with swollen bellies had been asked before their picture had been snapped – whether mothers knew what words and causes their children’s faces were selling.
“Power,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her excellent TED talk, “Is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
I had told a story – graciously, clumsily – of a family who had been helped, and in the process had defined them as a family who needed help. The before and after pictures I painted were compelling in a narrative sense but lacked complexity and an awareness of who this family really was.
“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” Adichie continues.
Organizations, churches, and individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the need for advocacy – yet in our eagerness to be “a voice for the voiceless” it is all too easy to be the very ones drowning out perfectly sound voices. In control of another’s narrative, we shape it to our own purposes. We claim a power we have no right to claim, making our stories the definitive stories of the people we think we are helping.
I think that to see our neighbors fully means more than telling stories of what they lack. This is not to say that all stories must have happy endings, or reflect lives that don’t exist – but truth and love demand a more complete picture. A story, perhaps, that people are proud to claim. A picture of a child its mother would treasure.
“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors,” writes Frederick Buechner. “…like artists we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”
This was my mistake. I tried to tell a story without knowing the lives behind it, without caring. I did not publish that story, however remarkable I still find it. It was not mine to share.
I’ll keep writing other people’s stories, but I appreciate now how great the responsibility is. To be trusted with another person’s story is to be trusted with their life – to define how others see them and respond to them.
I’ll keep telling other people’s stories, but only when I know them, and only when the stories remain their own.