Last week, I sat with some dear people as they told stories about their 91-year-old dad who had just died. I heard about Harry’s skills in woodworking, appreciation of baseball, the love of his family. I’d known this, but then his kids shared how he loved opera, and one time he even appeared onstage with the Lyric Opera in full make-up and costume as part of a crowd. I had no idea! As we talked, there were other beautiful surprises of the fullness of this man, his wide expanse of interests, hobbies, and passions.
Harry was a quiet, strong man, who’d fit a few of the stereotypes you’d imagine if you saw him with a cup of coffee here at church. And yet, he was also dozens of other more beautifully complex things, too. This came about because he had a depth of character and curiosity. His confidence and faithfulness gave him the freedom to keep learning, growing, and loving bigger. But this complexity is also just part of being human. We are all so much more than what we look like at first glance. There is so much that complicates us beyond those initial perceptions. We are so much more than just one thing.
In a now-viral TED Talk, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the beautiful complexities of our human lives. She tells the dangers of a single story, by sharing the ways that she has boxed people into a single identity, and the ways others flattened her identity into simply being a Nigerian immigrant.
She says: “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. . . . I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
We so quickly dismiss or distance ourselves from people based on one incomplete story. They’re just one thing – an old guy, an immigrant, a supporter of that political party, and on and on. But people are so much more than just one thing. When we begin to see people as whole novels of stories, whole libraries of experiences – our curiosity can empower our compassion. Our awareness of people as full, complex, and complicated humans moves us into relationships of commitment and care. And – delight! How fun it is to be surprised by people, to find those places of shared experiences or appreciations with someone who you, at first, thought was so different from you.
We are made in the image of God. So let’s spend these coming days, not only living with the freedom of our beautiful complexity – like Harry did. But also recognizing the fullness of one another’s stories, ready to see one another as God’s image-bearers. As we do, we’ll help tell God’s story of love, redemption, and hope.