Thirty-some years ago now, I lost my only first cousin on my mother’s side. He died in the hospital, left to await his burial in a emergency room sink- the decision of a hospital staff weighing the costs of rescuing his mother or saving him. They chose his mother, desperately trying to keep her alive as they worked on the injuries she sustained to her head. Those injuries, the result of a tragic car accident. I cannot even begin to process why there had to be a choice, for I am sure if this had happened today, both would have been saved. It has been the one question I have come back to time and time again over the years.
The baby’s name was Jesse. And when I think of him, I wonder what he would have looked like. What he would have been like had he lived. Wonder what it will be like to see him in Heaven someday.
One sweet day, wonder will become reality.
This past Christmas, some distant friends of friends (distant cousins of friends, I should really say) lost a beautiful baby girl. She died in-utero. Her given name was Zoe, which is of Greek origins meaning ‘life’. The mother and daddy were devastated, and as a testament to their daughter’s brief life, they decided to post on social media pictures of her wrapped up in the softest of pink blankets. Their beautiful baby girl. Her little lips pressed like rosebuds between the page of a beautiful book, only one short chapter of her life written for this life. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the picture capturing her infantile innocence- such perfection. Such beauty in a tiny, perfectly formed baby.
And such devastating loss.
While I ached at the grief evident behind the scenes of this precious baby’s picture, I couldn’t help but wonder what decisions must have been weighed in choosing to share publicly with the world at large the thoughts and emotions these parents were experiencing, along with the very emotional pictures of their deceased daughter. I can’t even imagine what this was like. But I know that when I saw the pictures and read the words that this parenting duo wrote to accompany their daughter’s eulogy, I was extremely touched. It moved me to know what they were feeling, and I felt a response within me to care for them and their situation.
I have been thinking about life and how we document our day-to-day experiences. Thinking about how we often frame our lives so that we are perceived in certain ways when presenting the details of our stories to the larger world around us. I have been thinking about what we include in our stories, our life narratives. And I have also been reflecting on what details- what information, facts and particulars- we leave out in the process when it comes to the final product.
Within the field of qualitative research studies, there is a branch of research called auto-ethnography- research that situates the Self in a particular culture or setting. I happen to be currently pursuing this field of research for my M.Ed. thesis study. Within the very broad spectrum of what constitutes auto-ethnography, there are categories of narrative (story-telling), one of which is called writing-stories. Essentially, these are narratives that one would write after the fact to explain the context of a story already written. Within this category of inquiry, there is a sub-genre of writing-stories called microprocess writing-stories, a genre of a narrative that concerns itself with the process of selecting what to include and what not to include when writing about oneself in the cultural backdrop that individual is situated. When invoking this form, what is studied is what happens ‘in process’- what we choose to include or not include- before final edits have been made. Revisions that have been decided via a momentary decision, hands hovering over the keys, perhaps ‘finger on the delete button’ are what this form is all about. It concerns itself with ‘behind the scenes’ looks at the decision writers make before they hit the literal or virtual send button.
Lately, I have been writing my own narratives with raw vulnerability. Trying to share as honestly as I can about who I am, where I am, what I am, why I am and how I am. Trying to not leave out any of the details that would explain me to you- even though that delete button looks so very safe much of the time. Being that I am not an island unto myself, this kind of writing can get tricky- especially as we are all social and relational beings prone to include details about how our lives intermingle with the significant others we love and care about.
This vulnerability-thing can complicate things when your story is also tied up in someone else’s story.
But in getting back to the issue of how we choose what to include or not include, it is very interesting to me that social media has given us the freedom to share our lives with one another in ways we never could have done in years past. Take Facebook, for instance. Just today, I was given a front-row seat into the experiential world of a dear friend as she shared very private details about a medical procedure she was undergoing. She not only included text, but she posted pictures as well- opening up her private world to the rest of us to view with no holds barred.
I am in absolute awe at her candour. For I consider this an act of truthfulness – to bare oneself to the public, not fashioning a self that has been contrived, but presenting the ‘real deal’ as who she is behind closed doors. This is honesty at its most vulnerable. Some would call this bravery- but I am more inclined to see it as unabashed sincerity. We do not see this kind of authenticity very often in terms of public interactions. We like to hide behind our façade so as to protect ourselves from injury or pain. We have very little trust that other people receiving the details of our story will handle us with care.
Not everyone can do this- live so openly. Nor should they. We all need to live with the decisions we make, and if we make decisions that end up with us feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, we know that those decision were not the right ones to make in the first place. But what I sometimes observe in people is a feeling of discomfort- an awkwardness that some people have, with others who decide to be honest about the details of their personal lives. This is apart from sharing about one’s own life- it is more about judgement calls we make concerning what other individual’s share about their lives. For there are certainly people who are uncomfortable about the whole issue of forthrightness and openness, people who do not agree with others making the very personal decision to be honest and open about who they are when using direct and public avenues of sharing such. But on both sides of the coin, this is an individual decision to make and live by. Again, we are all different in how we approach sharing life revelations.
But what can be difficult for the one doing the revealing, as that honesty requires a great deal of vulnerability, is criticism. For the one on the sharing end, to deal with criticism for your efforts can be very disappointing and disillusioning. Not to mention disheartening, as you have stepped out on a limb to reveal the very personal workings of your innermost being.
What this all comes down to is a decision: deciding that in sharing, there is a greater gain for the effort than there is in losing one or two people’s approval. One cannot possibly please all people, so the decisions made about what to share in public venues must therefore please the one sharing so as to be worth the effort.
I believe there are many benefits to gain from sharing one’s life in open, direct and forthright ways, as can be done in blogging formats or via social media, but I will highlight two here. One is a personal benefit and the other a public one. Firstly, we benefit personally from sharing with others our stories because we open ourselves up to the possibility of caring, responsive relationship being enabled through the sharing process. When we share, others often share back creating a responsive, relational circle of care. When we feel cared for, we are able to share more, growing our hearts in the process. This does not always work, but when it does, it is a beautiful thing.
And secondly, others benefit from our sharing by way of the fact that we start to chip away at the stereotypes that accompany secretive, hidden stories. We take away the shame, the horror and the feelings of humiliation of carefully guarded stories by making the issue at hand accessible No longer a secret, its power to reduce, discredit and disgrace is lessened. We are no longer at the mercy of the secret- we have taken its sting away through our telling. This serves to help others in that the feelings of awkwardness at ‘not knowing what to say’ quickly vanish. You are allowed to now say because you have been given permission to do so.
We live our lives as a testament to the person we were created to be- not for the purpose of pleasing other people around us. What we choose to include or omit, choose to revise and edit- these are decisions for us to make as individuals. And if the benefit outweighs the loss (with no harm done), we know we have made the right decision. But more than this, when we make the decision to share our lives- the beautiful, the bad and the devastatingly brutal, we also allow others the opportunity to experience empathy and care as a result. Through sharing our stories with one another, we open ourselves up to responsive relationships that are founded in care.
What we include to say or not say, says a lot about who we are. And how we respond to others in their vulnerable moments also speaks volumes about who we are and what we believe. When we embrace one another and allow for understanding, we learn from each other. And we come to understand just a little bit more what it means to be truly human. What is means to be both dichotomies: vulnerable and fragile, brave and beautifully strong.
Underneath it all, we are all just people. Just people. And when we share our stories, we grow in understanding of each other. Grow in love and empathy and compassion. For in sharing, we come to be more caring.
Care that grows each time we share.