I’m sitting on a porch in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma writing this. The spring rain is pouring down. My kids are inside the cabin watching a show. My wife is on the back porch answering emails during a “lull” in our spring break trip. And my mind is on the people we just saw at the “cowboy” restaurant where we just had lunch.
See, I’m a huge advocate of storytelling. And as I’ve traveled the country talking about the power stories – and sharing my own story of mental health recovery – much of my focus has been on my own story. About being open regarding my own struggles so people can find their own voice when it comes to sharing theirs. But as I sat in the restaurant today and looked around the packed dining room, I couldn’t help but wonder about the stories of those around me.
There was a table full of moms with their kids. No dads. Were the dads away for the day doing something adventurous? Were they back home working while the moms and wives took the kids on a trip? Did the moms and kids feel alone? Or maybe this was a welcome retreat from the chaos in their lives.
There was also a man decked out in Oklahoma State Cowboys’ gear sitting with his family. Was he a successful businessman who liked to rep his school? Was this a regular occurrence, or was this the trip of a lifetime? Maybe this was the first time he was able to get away in years, or maybe this was just another in a long line of getaways.
I don’t know. But my mind wandered. And wandered and wandered.
It’s appropriate considering that in the month of March we get “World Storytelling Day.” Here’s the definition according to Wikipedia:
World Storytelling Day is a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. It is celebrated yearly on the March equinox, on (or near) March 20. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible during the same day and night.
Participants tell each other about their events to share stories and inspiration, learn from each other and create international contacts.
Here’s the point of my little thought experiment, though. I love storytelling. It’s important. It’s healthy. It moves the world. Before we had the written word, we had oral stories, and they were passed down through generations. But can I be honest? I’ve always considered storytelling to be me-centric. It was me telling my story. That’s important, for sure. But as I sat in the restaurant today, I realized that’s only part of the importance of story. See, I’ve been so caught up in telling my own story that I haven’t given as much attention to listening to other people tell their stories. But today, the stories of those around me – even if I didn’t know them exactly – became real to me.
I think we all struggle with that to a certain extent. We can get so caught up in what’s going on within us that we ignore what’s going on around us.
And that’s the message I want to hammer home with you today as we encounter World Storytelling Day. I want to encourage you to consider the stories of those around you. What are they experiencing? What are they struggling with? What are their successes or failures?
So what does it look like to focus on the stories around us? Well, one of the biggest compliments I ever got in my life was from a friend who, in the middle of a road trip, turned to me and said, “Can I just say you ask the best questions?” I think that’s the answer. It looks like asking more questions. It looks like truly inquiring about what other people are experiencing. And it looks like listening.
So here’s a list of questions you can ask that can draw out the stories of those around you:
What has been your biggest struggle this year?
What has been your biggest win?
What gave you the most joy?
What gave you the most heartache?
What have you been learning?
Where do you see yourself two years from now?
What do you wish you could change about last year?
If you got a blank check this year to do anything you wanted, what would you do?
Those certainly aren’t all the questions you could ask, but I think they’re a good start. In the end, what I want you to do is to practice listening. Listen for the nuggets of someone else’s story before being so quick to share your own. And know this, I’m right along with you. I need to practice this, too.
Here’s the best part: when we do that, we’re actually more in line with what the Bible – the greatest book of advice, truth and wisdom ever written – says.
In fact, these two verses make it clear:
“To answer before listening — that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
"My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Bible talks about the importance of listening. It’s what we’re called to do. And honestly, that’s counter-cultural. There’s a lot being said about making your voice heard, but not enough being said about listening to those around us who are speaking. In other words, if you truly want to be counter-cultural and stand out, one of the best things you can do is listen to the stories of those around you.
Friends, too many of us are quick to speak but slow to listen. We need to change that. I need to change that. And once we do, I think we’ll find that there are some incredible stories around us. There are some incredible people around us.
And maybe, just maybe, they’re at a cowboy restaurant in the middle of Oklahoma. Where are they around you?