The Single Story

My father-in-law is 91 years old. He is a great man. Sometimes I wonder if he ever wasn’t a great man. Sometimes I wonder if he was ever unkind. I actually can’t picture much else besides an old guy who loves life, takes great interest in people, volunteers his time and is constantly learning. I have a “single story” about him. In recent years, he has given us glimpses of his past. He talks of serving in the Navy during World War II. He once made a comment about his college days before the war when he was “too busy chasing skirts.” I was a bit uncomfortable hearing that because it didn’t fit my single story.  This is healthy.

But what happens when having a single story is not healthy, even dangerous?  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is a highly educated author and speaker. I recently saw her speak of the dangers of having a single story when the story is filled with stereotypes, half-truths or no truths at all. As she spoke I thought to myself, ‘This could be the single reason why human beings can’t seem to get along—why atrocities are committed.  This could be why we shut people out.’  Imagine how little paper you would need if you had to write out everything you think you know about the people you don’t care for.  How much of the single story would be true? How many prejudices and preconceptions would it include? How complete could it possibly be?

I no longer have the time, the energy, or the ego to treat people poorly. I have decided it is better to replace the single story with kindness.

In his convocation speech at Syracuse University earlier this year, writer George Saunders told the energetic, young graduates of his greatest regret. It is not being poor from time to time or working crappy jobs, and it’s not some youthful indiscretion. “What I regret most in my life,” Saunders said, “Are failures of kindness—those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly, reservedly, mildly.” He concluded by telling his youthful audience that as a goal in life, they could do worse than trying to be kinder.

It sounded corny at first, but then I thought of my own life—times I failed to come to someone’s defense, when I didn’t have time to help or didn’t give someone a chance. I thought of the dozens of people I’ve worked with who I never even bothered to ask their kid’s names. Conversely, I thought of the people who’ve made the greatest impact on me. They were the ones who showed me uncommon kindness.

The good news is as we get older and life kicks us in the butt a few times, we have a choice. We can write a single story and we can stick with that, or we can let kindness prevail.  That’s what Dad did and that’s why he’s a great man.

It’s certainly not easy. People are not easy. But we are not separate in this life and really, we don’t want to be. What single stories are in your life? Which ones should be revised or discarded? It’s time.