The Story Economy Blog

A Week for Seeing

eye sketchJuly 3rd is my brother Paul’s birthday. He died five years ago, but he would have been 54 on Thursday. I think it’s obvious why I’m thinking of him this week.

But then there is the show Orange is the New Black, which I also can’t stop thinking about this week. I started watching it about a month ago, and I’m crazy into it. If you don’t know the premise of the show: an upper class, well-educated woman is sent to a minimum-security women’s prison when a drug-related indiscretion from 10 years earlier catches up with her. Her story is the way in for viewers, but it’s not nearly the most compelling one.

The magic of the show is that it happens in flashbacks. Every week, it’s these characters’ stories: snippets of their lives, flashing back to the key moments that made them and broke them.

It’s about a population of people I’ve probably never spent more than a random second thinking about it: average criminals (most of whom are there for drug-related offenses). Their stories are so common. But so hidden. We just don’t see them. Instead, they are put into the “not related to my life” category. But once you see who they are as people (not just what they’ve done), it changes how you view them.

And that’s where my brother is weirdly jumbled into the queue (my brain one, not the Netflix one). Paul was a tough one. This might sound familiar because I’ve written about him before. My other five siblings and I are fairly close—but he chose not to be part of that, which I never understood. He made some not-great decisions (okay, flat out bad decisions). And because of that, big chunks of his life fell into the “not related to my life” category.

But as I watch the stories of these women—dramatized stories, yes, but probably not that far off reality—I’m realizing that if a TV show can make me rethink a whole category of what’s related to my life, perhaps I never really saw my brother’s story either. Perhaps I never knew those key snippets that made him and broke him. Perhaps all I really saw were his decisions.

There is something unsettling about prizing the art of storytelling, but realizing that perhaps you are conveniently not seeing people’s stories.

I’m not really lamenting it—because the situation was what it was. We all did our best with who we were at the time.

But I can still learn from it.

In fact, I’m confident we can all learn to see better.

To See or Not to See

What does it mean to really “see” someone’s story? I think it means your vision of the person’s life and decisions is wider than objective facts.

Facts are prized. And super important. But facts camouflage the context and create “not related to me” categories.

Stories tear down those categories. Seeing someone’s story means you start dissolving the line between what’s related to your life and what’s not related to your life. And that’s the essence of connection. So when I watch Orange, I don’t see a bunch of drug addicts and pushers who got caught. I see people who were once kids, trying to figure stuff out in a weird world. I see conversations that made an impact (for better or worse). I see what went into the decisions: not just the decisions. I see that we all might be one click or strand of DNA or conversation away from being in a different story.

We can’t see everyone’s story. But it matters that we do see some people’s stories. Not just for empathy’s sake. But because it might change the outcome the next time. It might mean the difference between an employee who is engaged and one who wastes the company’s resources. Between getting divorced and not getting divorced. Between betting on a person and not betting on them.

Whose story do you need to see for the first time? What story is right in front of you, but conveniently hidden? And you when see it—really see it—what connection will that create? What will sneak out from under the camouflage?

And brother, I hope you are somewhere good.

Have a great holiday. Light a sparkler and eat some pie.

I’m taking a short hiatus from the blog for the month of July. But I’ll return—I promise!

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