“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer
Years ago at a dinner party in Egypt, our English host was waxing wise about China. His wife, a no-nonsense French woman, looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.
We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has read a book cannot claim experiential knowledge. A person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. Yet they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short-term mission or volunteer trip needs to be careful to tell their story with integrity and honesty, not as an expert, but as a learner.
It is easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate those experiences. Much of my life is a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced and be fair and wise within that communication.
Over the next few months, we will once again see many from western countries begin to plan trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Some people call them “Short term missions”, other people call them “Vision Trips”, and still others call them “Voluntourism”.
I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be careful about telling people they shouldn’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt that is going strong over 20 years later. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life-changing. I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East, and what they learned changed their worldview.
Sharing our stories is a God-given desire. It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view-point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place.
So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, if you are going on a home leave and will be speaking in churches, or if you are responsible for a group that is coming to your adopted country, here are a couple of guidelines to follow when sharing your stories.
- At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? We might say: “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” Other ways to begin are “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” Or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
- In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone else’s. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning and never as the expert.
- Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband knows that we love a good story, and some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. Using rich, descriptive language is important; telling stories that stretch the truth beyond recognition is dangerous.
- Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
- Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this many times, but I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” Stereotyping puts people into boxes that are difficult to crawl out of, and we do a disservice to people when we box them in.
- Share what you learned about yourself. The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, recognizing your privilege, and your tendency to be egocentric. Tell a story about how those things were challenged. Tell a story of how you learned more about God through being out of your comfortable places and away from your comfortable people. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story. As the quote above says: “Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories you have to tell.”*
Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. That is why the way we tell our stories is so important. Because if we share them well, everyone benefits.
What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty?
*Charles de Lint