Everyone has a story that helps explain, not excuse, why they think the way they do. Taking the time to listen to another’s tale is a gift to them. Having them take the time to tell us the what and wherefore of their lives is a gift to us. If we take the time to listen, we will never be the same. If they take the time to tell us, nor will they be.
I love hearing people’s stories, particularly when their lives have been, and are very different from my own. I always learn something important when I ask, “What was it like growing up for you?” The stories that are told are oftentimes sad. The person with whom I’m talking sometimes had to deal with unimaginable challenges. They had polio, or some other debilitating childhood disease. Their father took his life when they were young. Their mother was mentally ill, and mistreated them. They were sexually abused. They were poor and went to bed hungry.
Some stories speak of privileges unimagined by me, such as grandmothers who took them as children to Europe, of going to private schools with the children of movie stars and old-world nobility, and of having horses, private planes, and chefs.
Some people fear that telling their story makes them vulnerable to those who would seek to dismiss them. The opposite is true. In my experience, telling your story liberates and empowers you. You increase the odds of feeling understood. Other people fear that listening to a story, especially from someone more privileged, will diminish them in the eyes of the other, make them feel “less than,” or unfairly treated by life.
Quite the contrary, story-telling can be the equalizer, for when all of the hard luck and good luck elements are told and out of the way, you eventually get to the most basic criteria for happiness, “Did you feel loved?”
Having a mother who is mentally ill doesn’t mean that you are unloved, any more than going to private schools makes you feel loved. And you needn’t be poor to feel disadvantaged, and lonely.
Many of us don’t arrive at that truth until we’re older, but that’s often because we didn’t take the time, or have the opportunity, to hear someone speak of experiences very different than our own.
One question that I always got when I spoke to college and corporate audiences about growing up gay, was, “How did your parents react when you told them?”
Fortunately, I was able to say that my parents accepted me, and never stopped loving me no matter how much public attention I brought to them with my well-publicized civil rights case with the Catholic Church.
Once out, my boyfriends were always welcome in our home, and Ray became a much-loved son-in-law. It seems to me that hearing that I was loved by my family connected me to those in the audience for whom family was important. It made me less foreign, and perhaps envied by those who didn’t experience love and acceptance despite them being straight.
Many people over the years have told me how impactful it was for them to hear my story, how it helped them understand what it was like growing up with a secret I didn’t understand, and was afraid to tell anyone.
From my perspective, being invited to tell my story over and over again, hundreds of times, maybe thousands, was a gift that allowed me to continually discern what was important, not just to the audience, but to me. The more I spoke, the more confident I became, not just as a speaker, but as a gay man who truly was fortunate to have experienced love as a grandchild, child, brother, nephew, friend, and neighbor.
It’s easy to put labels on other people, to put them in boxes. That’s what’s done when they’re deemed a threat, or, the enemy. But, as understandable as it is that we do it out of fear, it is foolishness that says far more about us than it does about them
I’ve done it my whole life. I’ve done it to feel stronger, dominant, unafraid. People were “homophobes.” They were “Right Wing, Fundamentalist fanatics,” or, “Conservative Republicans.”
The same was done to me. I was dismissed as a “coward” for being a conscientious objector, and “an avowed homosexual” for coming out as gay. In the gay community, I was dismissed by some as “an assimilationist” for being Catholic. Just as the labels used with me foolishly missed the basics of who I am, my labels of others did the same.
This may not be easily accomplished at this politically divisive, quarantined time in history, but before we die thinking we’ve got it all worked out, we should start asking others to tell us about themselves. “What was it like for you growing up?”
If we truly listen, we’ll learn a whole lot about life that we hadn’t imagined, and we’ll eventually get to the thing that connects us all, “Did you feel loved?”
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training."