Stories matter. When I ask people about their life the answers often comes in a story, or two, or three. And yet at the end of our lives when our loved ones are trying to describe us to others the words are hard to find. She was “nice” or “kind” or “always made time for others”. He was “a good guy” or “always ready to help” or “big hearted”. The difficulty in using words like these is the feeling that they describe most everyone. We all think our mother was the greatest (well most) or our father was the greatest (well most) but the reality is we are not really telling others much about our loved one with these words.
And no matter many words you use to describe someone you love it will equally apply to countless others.
The other well-worn tact people take in trying to accurately describe a loved one is to use their resume, talk about their education, their employment, their volunteer activities, their honours. While this does give a more personal tone to the narrative it fails miserably to provide the colour, the spirit and the impact this life has made. Resumes are for obituaries. Most litanies like this fall flat in conversation or public speech.
Who can forget the way Justin Trudeau eulogized his father? Pierre Trudeau’s obituary would read longer than an encyclopedia. The list of the senior Trudeau’s accomplishments would go on and on and on. Yet if someone stood in that Cathedral that morning and read these facts the assembled congregation, not to mention the millions watching at home, would have been agitated and distracted. Instead Justin Trudeau told a story, a short story about his Dad dressed as Santa Claus. It was a story about someone who would arrive to save the day, and the message was not lost on anyone. That story, like Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, launched Justin Trudeau’s career.
Story telling is an art form. But one needed not be Stuart McLean or Garrison Keillor to tell a story. All of us can begin the work of writing down our stories, the stories of those we love, in anticipation of a day when we will have our life celebrated or celebrated loved ones. Better, we can look at these stories, ours and theirs, from time to time to remember the power those stories have had on our life and the power that new stories could and will have on our lives.
In church world when asked to describe Jesus people reference a Gospel story about Jesus. I once spent a whole evening asking people to share their favorite Jesus story. It was a powerful evening. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same some evening in our own homes, about the people we know so well. As that old hymn goes, “I love to tell the story…”