Where Is Your Story?

There’s a man – let’s call him “Tommy” – who comes to my front door from time to time with plenty of stories to tell.

“Man, I had a stroke. I been in the nursing home. Now I got no food in the house. Somebody broke in and stole my TV. Then my sister got into a car accident and I had to take care of her and man, I got no money left for my medicine. You got any money for gas? I got into an accident last year and I got a settlement coming in on Monday. I can pay you back double next week.”

One time I told Tommy I had a hard time believing his stories. I told him I never doubted when he came to my door that he needed help; he didn’t ever need to lie to me to trump up the direness of his situation or his ability to pay me back. All he had to do was ask.

He admitted he’d told me lies in the past and apologized. I think that was a hard thing for him to do. He told me from now on he would only tell me the truth.

I didn’t see him on my doorstep for a while after that. The next time I did …

“Man, I had another stroke. I couldn’t move the whole left side of my body …”

What is likely the truth about Tommy’s life? That is hard to say. A long scar on the back of his neck proves he indeed had major surgery at some point. Whether due to physical or mental disabilities, he likely is not able to impress a reputable employer with his work ability. He likely lives alone.

Whatever it is, I think Tommy believes the truth about his life is not worth speaking aloud. I don’t know whether the children at home who occasionally enter his monologues are real, but what I am certain of is that he believes any story worth telling should include them. He believes that only a financially responsible, down-on-his-luck father and brother, hard worker trying to make ends meet, former churchgoer wanting to return, is a person worth caring about.

There is much more to Tommy’s true, unembellished story than he realizes. There is a man inside the web of lies with a history of accomplishments and mistakes just like everyone else. There are struggles with systems meant to help individuals in poverty that are difficult to navigate. There is a sense of the meaning of faith, what it means to believe and stop believing, what it means to feel accepted and like an outsider.

Finding the story can be hard work even when no one’s lying. When I interview nonprofit donors, staff and clients, business owners, customers and subject matter experts, I often don’t know where the heart of the story is until the interview is over. It’s always there, though, and it’s worth finding. There is always someone else who can learn something from its telling.

I hope Tommy keeps coming to my door because I’ve got something to learn from him. I don’t know what yet. I don’t know how long it will take, either. But one day I hope the lies will fade away and I’ll hear his true story the way the angels tell it now.

At some point in our lives we all believe that our true story isn’t good enough. That it doesn’t matter. Well, it does. And I want to hear it.

That’s all I wanted to say.