People before narratives

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Dear friends of Refuge,

Recently, I read this phrase:

Those who control the narrative control the people.

I love sharing stories (narratives), so I had to ask myself if this was my way of taking control of others. Maybe so, but I also believe that if you spend enough time listening to people, they will defy the narratives you believe about them.

Either you’ll rethink your narrative completely or a person may affirm it, but in such a unique, utterly human way that you will—again if you pay close attention—shift your focus from the story in your head to the person in front of you.

Oddly, this line of thought made me think about a man named “Sam” who used to visit Refuge regularly. I’m not sure any of us have ever seen Sam in any other state than rollicking drunkenness. He asked me to marry him a few years ago, which made Bill laugh. I found out he proposed to most of our staff at least once. Often, he would show up with stitches or bruises on his head from falls or, to hear him tell it, altercations in “the pokey,” and he made a regular habit of stealing our t-shirts, sometimes offering me a dollar or two the next day for the t-shirt he’d stolen, torn, and was currently wearing.

One day, our COO, Susan, said, “Sam, I bet when you’re sober, you are such a delightful human.”

This made Sam cry tears that seemed to say, “Someone sees me.”

If you watched The Andy Griffith Show growing up, maybe you’re thinking of the character Otis right now. There was a gentle dignity in the way Otis was treated by the sheriff and deputy of Mayberry. No one tried to fix or change him, although sometime in his distant youth there may have been attempts. He was accepted as is, and only arrested when he became a danger to others or to himself or simply needed a place to lay his head.

If you pan out and turn Sam or Otis into a “crisis” or even a particular social “narrative,” he fades to the background while you and your opinions come crashing into the foreground. You control the narrative. And the individual humans you describe as a clinical control set are lost.

I’m not opposed to exploring a broader view of any crisis or social construct. I’m just not good at it. This particular idea about narratives as a means of control is a fresh idea for me, so I hesitate to make broad comments beyond these about it while I process the concept. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I do know that the only narrative I can control is the  one inside my own head. Over the years, I’ve also learned to be kind and gracious in the stories I tell myself about myself! And I’ve learned to laugh. So, in case you want to hear a funny story or, rather, my own attempt at a face-saving narrative, read on…

In the meantime, if I’ve learned anything at Refuge, it has been that people can defy narratives—if I allow them to—and just as stories are a powerful medium to control perspectives, they are also a powerful medium to share those victories as well.

More on the Subject

Bill used to say my superpower was that I could laugh at myself. It’s probably a primitive and transparent defense mechanism, but it’s true. Often making fun of what might be embarrassing to others is simply the best option. And besides, hiding in shame isn’t as much fun.

For example, I am a sucker for a too-good-to-be-true deal. And we all know what they say about those. Well, last week I got obsessed with finding a small ladder for my library. I’d had to haul an unwieldy step ladder out of the laundry room one too many times to hunt for a book on the top shelf.

I didn’t want a roller system or something that would take up a lot of room. It’s a little library, after all, arranged already in a perfect (to me) feng shui state with shelves, books, and furniture. I did an Amazon search, an Etsy search, and then a Google search. And I found just the thing at Walmart, of all places! Maybe that’s why I didn’t question the low price. In fact, the price was so low, I bought it on the spot, even though I’ve been working on curbing my impulse buys by waiting a day.

I got a tracking notice a few days later and decided to go back to the details of my order to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. It took some digging and several clicks on “learn more…” to discover that my beautiful ladder was 9” tall!! Nowhere did it say this was a display ladder, meant to take up space on a bookshelf instead of leaning against one.

So, there you have it. I did something idiotic, and I’ve chosen to make fun of it for your benefit. What if I’m controlling you by making you laugh?! Sometimes a little storytelling persuasion is harmless, right?

To listening and storytelling, 


P. S. – All photos above are from last year’s World Refugee Day at Refuge. The photo below is self-explanatory! 

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