The other night I had a great chat with Liz Purdy about stories. Specifically, having lived in a place that is not your own, and sharing the story of that place once you’ve left. There’s only so much witness you can give to a time and a place when you’re not present there.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve been sorting through photos of Papua. This photo in particular struck me as representative of the complexities of that place. There’s so much going on at the surface: development, infrastructure, new businesses, old businesses, houses, churches, and below the surface, the dynamics of the people within the systems represented here.
I was struck by the thought that, in this vast universe where anything can happen, my story and the story of Papua intersected. It was only for brief moment in time, but now it’s forever a part of history. As complicated as those stories are, and how little I understand about myself and my experiences, it happened.
It’s such a mysterious place, so very complicated, it’s no wonder I so often didn’t know what to do or how to feel when I was there. How could I ever begin to express what it’s like and the significance of my experience? How could anyone ever begin to understand? And what’s the point of telling those stories? For my own benefit, or for the benefit of the people who live there? Is it for the benefit of the listener? And what do I expect or hope the outcome to be?
There’s a lot I don’t understand and my memories are almost as complicated as the place and people I remember. It’s because of that, and because much of it makes me sad/happy/lost/alone/fulfilled (and much more) that I spend so much time not thinking about it. But as I look at that picture I realize it’s worth remembering, and worth telling the stories, because as I do both of those things the layers peel away and I start to see things in a new light.
I can’t explain Papua or make anyone understand what that place is like or why it’s important. What I can do is share my own stories. Since I’ve left there, I’ve changed. Papua has changed. I can’t speak to what it’s like there, only what it was like for me. My experience will never be a whole picture of any place or time, it reveals one part of it, some sliver of time and space, a slice of humanity. That said, I believe our stories give witness to a larger, universal whole.
The more I think about it, the more I value the mutual sharing of stories. Hearing another’s is a big part of what gives my story value. Both stories are parts of a larger whole. Both help the hearer understand things they have and have not seen or felt themselves. As I hope that the stories I carry will fill some gap in understanding for you, I need to hear yours to fill in the blanks for me too.