Another school year is starting, which means students are finding their way to classes, the ground is being painted with colorful leaves and rain, coffee shops are filling up, and peer advisors and student ministry coordinators are introducing their floors to the art of the ‘life story.’
The first time I heard the term life story, I was both baffled and intrigued. I had never heard the phrase before coming to SPU two years ago. And now, I’m more familiar with it than I’d like to admit.
Life stories are just what they sound like – someone talking about his or her life. Usually done throughout fall quarter, life stories are supposed to be a way to get to know the people on your floor. And while I understand and acknowledge that this is supposed to be a time for people to get to know each other and be open with each other emotionally, it’s the opposite. Life stories are disingenuous.
Sitting down in a cramped lounge and listening to one person talk about his or her entire life is not the ideal way of getting to know someone or making any sort of real connection.
First of all, one person telling his or her story to a group of 20 or more people is not the way to connect. There is almost no interaction between anyone. The person talking could potentially feel no connection to anyone because there’s no verbal response. The storyteller literally sits in front of near strangers and talks about his or her life for about 30 silent, uninterrupted minutes. Sure, there is the occasional shared tear, but it’s awkward to cry in front of people you barely know. And one could argue that body language and facial expressions could be a response that would encourage the speaker, but the majority of body movement is that of fidgeting due to someone sitting on a finger or feet folded in ways they should not be folded.
But one may argue that hearing a summary of someone’s life is a way to get to know at least a little bit about him or her. But still, you cannot learn enough about someone without any interaction.
And maybe some people value life stories because they have a hard time getting to know someone one-on-one. But even though listening to someone’s life story may be a good way to be introduced to someone, genuine, lasting connections don’t happen during speeches; they happen during conversations between a few people. When there are fewer people involved, there’s more opportunity for response and discovering commonalities, which is what friendship is built on.
And not only are life stories flawed because of the lack of interaction, but also because they are a set time to get to know someone. Making a friend shouldn’t be forced or feel like some kind of mandatory bonding ritual. Getting to know someone for the sake of doing it, because it’s the status quo, comes off disingenuously intentional – some of the best friendships happen gradually.
Learning about a friend should come over discovering you share a favorite book, venting about family problems late at night or finding out you have the same taste in music. A lot of the time, making a friend and sharing personal information happens by chance, not during a scheduled time.
But perhaps the most concerning aspect of life stories is the need to impress. Somehow, the practice of life stories ranks the person and his or her life based on how tragic it is. If a person tells a story about a sibling dying, parental abuse or a near suicide, that person and his or her life could be seen as having the more significant history. But if someone’s life only includes the typical fights with friends, breakup stories and summer camps, this life story could be perceived to be less meaningful in light of more tragic life stories, thus making a more average life story less entertaining.
Talking to someone about your life shouldn’t feel like a competition – it should be cathartic.
Simply put, talking to a group of people during a set 30-minute time period, while wondering if your life is entertaining enough, is not the way to cultivate community or form a lasting friendship.