It turns out there’s a word for that feeling you get when you realise every stranger passing you by has a life as vivid and complex as your own. It is ‘sonder’.
For some of us, the consciousness of the complexity of other people’s lives goes further than mere acknowledgement, it bleeds into curiosity. This person has a story, but what is it?
I’ve always loved other people’s stories, that’s why I ask believers their testimonies and speak to whoever sits beside me in the theatre or on the train. Over the last year or more, my curiosity has shifted. While still keenly interested in their stories, I find myself wondering more and more about the stories we don’t tell.
I’ve seen the quote do the rounds several times (you can’t avoid it when you know other writers) but most recently it was attributed to Maya Angelou:
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
Though this is supposed to be a motivation to get a wiggle on and put those stories down on paper, it made me think. We’re tale-telling creatures, we were made that way, but we all have all have stories that we hold inside, stories that might change things if only we would tell them. Yet we hold them close and keep our mouths shut, sometimes through shame, sometimes love, sometimes to keep the peace, and sometimes through (perhaps misplaced) loyalty. They sit heavy on our chests, these stories, but we rarely notice, we are so used to carrying them.
There are some things we keep to ourselves because they’re special and they belong to us. In a social media saturated world, we need to learn to be more protective of these moments because quiet afternoons with your children and warm evenings with loved ones belong to us; the world doesn’t need to invade all the time. There are stories that are just for us.
Then there are the ones we long to tell. Like Eleanor Dashwood, we bear scorn and blame and do not correct people about their assumptions and misunderstandings. But we want to. There is a desire deep down to blurt it all out so they can at last see the truth of the matter. So that we may be vindicated.
Untold stories can be a heavy thing to bear, knowing the truth but allowing others to continue in speculation and conjecture. Why do we do it? Why do we hold these untold stories inside ourselves if it hurts so much? Why continue in silence?
There are two reasons really. Often, we are silent for the sake of someone else and so the first reason is very few people need to know. We forget this, living in a world where we have multiple Instagram accounts devoted to our pets, our meals, our outfits, our reading list, and our work-outs. Who really needs to know?
There will always be those who surface around the edges of our acquaintance and will mutter and postulate before disappearing again but it’s nowt to do with them. It might feel good to air your grievances on Twitter and garner a hundred sympathetic but ignorant responses but that changes nothing. It only serves to swell your pride and tempt you to self-pity. We are a culture of compulsive over-sharers, publicising far too much of all the wrong things and it needs to stop. We need to learn when to share what, who to share it with, and when to keep our stories to ourselves. Who actually needs to know this?
The other reason counts more towards the painful tales we keep inside. If no laws have been broken and no one is at risk in any way but it’s still difficult and painful, find one or two trusted people to confide in and seek advice from them. Disclosure: If there is some crime involved or danger towards yourself or others, that’s a whole different matter, you must alert the appropriate authorities.
It can be hard, knowing you could turn the gossip and disapproval away from yourself and be relieved of the burden of blame but that’s no reason to open your mouth, especially if it could do damage to other people.
Hagar was right when she said God is the God who sees us. He sees the pain, the sadness, the injustice against us, and our own guilt in the matter. If God knows our untold stories, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is that not enough? If we were in the wrong (in part or in whole), his grace is plenty to cover our shame if we repent. And if we were wronged, he knows and he will judge accordingly.
God sees all things, he knows all things. He knows all our sorrows, all our joys, and all the untold stories we hold inside. We need not open our mouths to seek affirmation nor vindication in the world. We have a God who sees us, a God who hears us, and a God who gives the grace we need to carry our untold stories inside, knowing that we are forgiven, we are justified, and we are not forsaken.