“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:” James 1:15
A few years ago, I went to New York City with my sister-in-law and nieces. We walked among the streets of New York, taking in the sights. We looked for Eloise in the Plaza Hotel, ate pizza at John’s and window shopped at Tiffany’s. While we were in Rockefeller Center, we saw a Kate Spade store and decided to look at designer purses. Although I typically buy my purses at Target, I must admit I was a bit entranced with the merchandise. The purses were in bright vivid colors with whimsical patterned linings peeking out from the inside. One purse, a small picnic basket with strawberries on top, seemed perfect to carry while taking a stroll in Central Park. Even her umbrellas were delightful, making me want to sing for rain like Christopher Robin.
After leaving New York, I did a little research on Kate Spade. She started designing handbags that were both functional and stylish, without being too formal, in her living room. Her designs were known for their touch of whimsy and eventually became staples at Barney’s and Macy’s. She expanded her designs to housewares, including dishes and linens. She even wrote a few books on her design philosophy and has a few notable quotes such as, “She makes the day brighter; she leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.” “Think, travel, celebrate, charm, decorate, dress, live-colorfully” is another quote of hers often appearing on Pinterest boards. I identified with her optimistic view of life along with her designs, which created a secret desire to someday own a Kate Spade purse!
A few months later, I was shocked to hear that this woman, who told others to “Eat cake for breakfast”, was found dead by her own hand at age 55! According to her husband, she had struggled with anxiety and depression for years and decided to end her own life. This woman, who created beautiful purses that exuded happiness, struggled with darkness within herself that diminished her spark. We, as consumers, had no idea of the true story Kate Spade was living.
I want to acknowledge that Kate Spade suffered from a mental illness that is sometimes hard to control, even with medication. I believe she was genuine in wanting to make women’s days brighter by creating beautiful handbags. Her mental illness, like any other illness, eventually affected her optimism, creating a sense of hopelessness and resulting in her ending her life.
We live in a world full of “Kate Spades”. People are always posting Instagram pictures of their family eating a homemade meal, when after the perfect picture, the meal is consumed in silence due to familial tensions. We see people in the store faking smiles, while inwardly they are falling apart because of broken relationships, addictions, or health concerns. We wave to our neighbors and make small talk about the weather, not knowing they may have lost their job or are having problems with anger. We attend church with people who greet us with “I’m fine” but are on the verge of tears because they feel alone or like a failure. Even though our world looks larger by how many friends we have on Facebook, survey after survey has indicated that people feel more disconnected than ever. The recent need to “socially distant” has likely heightened this sense of disconnection. The “Kate Spades” around us have stories that need to be heard!
In my last post, I recognized how my own story has played out in my life. This recognition has awakened a curiosity in me. What are other people’s stories? How do their stories shape them? What can I learn from them? This curiosity does not stem from nosiness or a desire to analyze a person’s behavior. Instead, it has made me more empathetic towards others, less prone to judgment, and more apt to listen. It has also made me ponder why so many of us avoid sharing our stories with others. What fears hold us back from revealing the messiness of our life, and instead choose to suffer in silence? What does a community need to look like to be safe for others to share their story?
For the last few years, I have struggled with feeling rejected by a person in my life. This person, because of their position, has had the opportunity to speak encouragement and wisdom into my life. Instead, I have felt ignored and devalued by their lack of interest or even acknowledgement of major accomplishments and trials in my life. I have spent a lot of time in prayer and discussing the matter with a few trusted friends, trying to gain some healthy perspective on the situation. I have asked myself hard questions. Why do I feel a need for approval from this person? Is it possible that I am just reading the situation wrong? It finally reached a climax, and I was ready to confront this person, but God had a better plan. Instead of confronting, God provided me with the opportunity to hear that person. While listening, I realized, that they, too, have had a lot going on in their life. This person was feeling stressed by multiple situations and completely spent emotionally, with little energy to give. When I got a glimpse of their story, I instantly felt compassion. All the energy I had invested in feeling rejected because they did not acknowledge my story was mitigated by hearing their story.When we know someone’s story, it allows us to be more forgiving of their shortcomings. I am not saying that we give them a pass for bad behavior, or we ignore healthy boundaries in our life. But I am saying that knowing someone’s story can diminish a perceived offense and give you a window into their soul. It gives you an opportunity of being a light in their life. We all have a desire to be known, and when we truly listen to another person’s story, we give them an opportunity to feel valued and heard!
Recently, my family had two new friends over for Sunday dinner. Afterward, we sat down together and started talking. Somehow the conversations moved from generic topics, like jobs and places we had lived, to sharing our stories. Within a few hours, we had the privilege of hearing how God was working in the lives of these two people. After my guests left, I felt in awe with what had transpired. A simple Sunday meal turned into an opportunity for all of us to hear about God’s transforming power!
This Sunday dinner conversation was not something I had orchestrated, but I do believe my family and I did a few things to create an environment where open conversations could transpire. First, we invited people into our home. This simple act let our guests know that they were important enough to be included in our personal, everyday life. Second, we were authentic and engaged. We did not focus on the food or the table setting, but instead focused on getting to know our guests and making them feel comfortable and welcome. Third, we listened and were careful with our interjections. It is important when listening to a person’s story that we are careful to respond thoughtfully. When sharing their stories, people are not looking for trite platitudes. Instead, they are looking for someone to listen to them and validate their feelings. Creating a community where people feel safe and connected is a key component for helping other share their stories.
One of my all-time favorite books is “Little Women”. It is the story of the lives of four sisters. Every time I read this book, I am struck by how much I learn from each of the characters. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy all have different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Although they live in the same home with the same parents, they each have different stories. At different points in my life, I have learned from Jo’s pride, Meg’s desire to feel included, Amy’s desire for nice things, and Beth’s acceptance of her fate. As I learn and grow from books I read, I can also learn from the stories that other’s share. Too often, I have thought about what I can bring to the conversation to support others. Instead, I am realizing that what I can learn from their stories is just as important. This desire to learn eliminates any pressure to have the right response. Instead, it puts everyone on the same playing field, each with their own story of brokenness needing the intervention of the transforming power of God!
Our world is extremely divided: politically, socially, racially, and spiritually. Our social media feeds are filled with vicious insults from all perspectives. We have created new terms to define our differences like “the cancel culture. Yet, I believe healing can happen if we, in part, learn to set aside our differences and be willing to listen to each other’s stories. Everybody has a story, and I have the obligation, as it says in James 1:19, to “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” My prayer is that all of us everywhere learn to listen well.