Many high school students across our community will be graduating this weekend. Graduation is a capstone on years of hard work, awkward social situations, and standardized tests. I graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 2007, and I remember the moment fondly. High school graduation is often a time when family and friends gather to celebrate and give thanks. It’s rare to have so many people you care about come together.
In 2007, I remember lots of small conversations, congratulations, and laughter. It was truly a good day. But reflecting back, it was also an opportunity that I didn’t fully appreciate. Family gatherings and moments of celebration, like a high school graduation, are fields ripe with stories. Stories that often go unheard and unspoken, stories that connect our past with our present, and stories that guide our future.
There are some people who were at my graduation, both family and friends, who are not here today. Their stories live on in memories. But I wish I had been more proactive, more intentional, and more open to sharing and listening with them. I wish I had sat down and asked them, “What’s your story?” In an era of 140 character quips and sensationalized sound bites, the art, beauty and power of person-to-person storytelling is fading.
Let’s get technical for a second. What is a story?
The dictionary defines a story in many ways, but the simplest definition is an account of events.
We all tell stories all the time. We read stories to children before they go to bed, we tell stories about our days around the dinner table, and we share tales of personal, intimate, and emotional moments from our lives with the people we trust most. Sometimes we tell stories in front of microphones, cameras, or on stages. Sometimes our stories are theatrical, poetic, hilarious, or sobering. Stories are the fabric of our society. From chit-chat to monologues, diatribes to epics, stories are the basic building blocks of communication. For as long as we have been humans on this planet, we have been telling and listening to stories.
I tell stories for a living. As a journalist, a poet and an educator, my work uses the power of storytelling to build peace. As conflict narrative specialist Dr. Sarah Cobb says, “Stories are the architecture of consciousness.” Stories affect our thoughts, words and actions. Despite their intangible nature, stories are one of the most powerful things we hold. Stories engage empathy, reconciliation and understanding. Storytelling is more than an abstract concept or an art, it is a strategic, powerful and universal human connector.
And this is why graduation weekend is such a fertile and potent opportunity. If you are gathering with family or friends this weekend, be intentional, and take the time to share a story that says something about who you are as a person.
Ask a young person to tell you a story that says something about who they are and what they have learned so far. Young people are often relegated to the status of empty vessels that must be filled with knowledge and experience. Quantitatively they are young. But qualitatively, they are unique, powerful, and hold wisdom and experiences we should all learn from.
Ask an older person to tell you a story. Glean the knowledge, wisdom and power of the people who have come before us. Make connections to past generations and reimagine their insight through your own eyes. The stories of our family and friends are part of us. Whether acknowledged or not, they have shaped the reality that we see today. Take time, listen deeply and reflect. There are too many stories that slip away.
I have a friend who greets all the new people he meets with a simple question. “What’s your story?” It catches people off guard. It caught me off guard. Some people are not ready to share or dive deep, especially with someone they just met. Others open up right away. There is no wrong way to answer this question. The question is a platform. It’s a genuine inquiry into who you are and what you want to share. It’s an invitation to connect in one of the most meaningful and time-tested ways.
This weekend, whether you are at a graduation celebration or not, ask someone you just met or someone you’ve known your whole life, “What’s your story?” Maybe they will say no thanks, or deflect, or prefer to just share small talk. That’s OK. But maybe they will relish the opportunity to connect with you. So often, people have something to say, but they are just waiting for an opportunity. They are waiting for a moment when someone affirms that their story is important and that you want to hear it.
Don’t just ask someone about the news, the weather or their job. Ask them to tell you a story and be willing to share one of your own. Be genuine, be curious, be respectful, and listen. You’ll be surprised how far this simple question goes. So what’s your story?
You can reach Will McInerney at firstname.lastname@example.org