I found myself sitting in a Chick-fil-A with some friends of mine the other night. We were feeling in the mood for a quick bite after small group one evening and we knew that we were a short drive away.
Inside the establishment, the five of us sat around a set of two tables in the center of the restaurant. The crowds that normally thronged the place had long since gone their own separate ways. The only sound apart from the soft instrumental music was the gentle sweep of a broom far across the room. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard my friends talking.
I watched as the last of the rush hour traffic slowly dissipated, a lone car winding its way past in the night. Across the road, my university campus stood quietly, tucked behind bushes and trees as if it were listening for something.
I paused to scratch a note on a napkin. Looking up, I saw that one of my friends was looking intently at my hand.
“Oh,” I said, “don’t mind me, I’m just writing down something for later.”
She didn’t seem to care.
“What do those rings mean?” she asked.
“Now, that is a bit of a story,” I said. “Do you have a moment?”
“Of course,” she replied. “Why do you think we’re here?”
“Well,” I started, “it might take a while. I wrote it down somewhere. D’ya mind?”
She shook her head.
Frederick Buechner once wrote that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The same can be said for stories, I think. In some strange way, we have discovered means by which to communicate as a species, where we can take one intensely personal concept, ascribe to it a sound, and send it across the void to a receiver who can take that strange, chaotic, random, arbitrary, wonderful noise and translate it into the idea once again, more or less. But in doing so, we imbue the noise with our own experience.
My notion of love is similar, but not exact, to the person that sits across from me. Such an abstract concept must have some concretion to it, and we fill in the gaps with our memories that we affiliate with the notion of love. And depending on how we were impacted and informed through these experiences, our notions of love may be related, but not exactly the same. Perspective matters.
I finished the story right as a staff member had come by to inform us that the restaurant was closing for the night. We thanked her and stepped out into the warm evening.
“So, what did you think?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “You told me a story about the ring, but you never came out with what the ring means exactly.”
I smirked. “Does it matter?”
Her inquiring look turned to that of annoyance.
“Well, yeah, it does,” she protested. “There has got to be a single meaning behind the ring.”
She paused for a moment. “Right?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “What if you read the story and I wasn’t here? How would you know if what you believed the ring to be about was right?”
My friend was silent, deep in thought. “Well, that wouldn’t matter, because you’re here now.”
“Aw, come on,” I laughed. “That’s cheating.”
We all stopped outside my apartment complex. Here and there, one could see streetlights with their warm glow dot the area here and there. Occasionally, a tree would obscure the streetlights for a moment, until a breeze pushed their branches out of the way for a moment. In the distance, someone was shooting off leftover fireworks from their fourth of July celebrations.
After looking around for a brief moment, I turned to leave but paused, a playful smile creeping across my face.
“Here’s your last chance!” I said. “Take another guess.”
“Well,” she pondered, “You must have had some intended meaning when you wrote the story.”
I nodded as she continued. “But at the exact same time, I don’t know what you were thinking exactly at that moment. Plus, I only know my own experience.”
Her eyes lit up. “Are- are you saying that the meaning is flexible? That there’s a certain frame around which meaning is determined? Is there no right or wrong answer?”
“Maybe,” I replied, “but that would make the purpose of storytelling pointless. Something needs to serve as an anchor. I think the author only generates half of the meaning, and the other is your own experience.”
I paused at the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s why stories are so powerful. They adapt. Tolle lege.”
I think the reason why we get so caught up in trying to determine one simple meaning from a story down is because we like the idea of control. We appreciate that there should only be one author and the characters simply support the plot. And yet the biblical scholar Walter Wink once observed that objectivism is possible, but not in the sense which modernity holds – that all bias can be removed and one absolute truth can be reached. However, objectivity is possible through acknowledging the biases of the authors to the best of our ability and moving through it.
I used to think that I was the only author to my story, but now I know that we all play a role in writing each scene, and each narrator has a different take on the unfolding events. Hence, every author only makes half of the meaning. The task of interpretation is left up to the recipient.
The beauty of post-modernity and storytelling is the fact that one’s perspective isn’t wrong, but it’s also not complete either. We need to continue to make room to hear others’ takes so we can see a fuller perspective.
Both ask us, in other words, to be willing to sit down over a meal with another person. By doing so, we can evaluate how each perspective is valid, rather than falling into the binary of absolute right and absolute wrong.
Oftentimes, I’d wager, the reason why a person holds a position is because it has worked for them to some capacity. Now, the task is uncovering why, how, and to what extent each position works.
And that requires a lot of listening.
I had reached the door to my apartment and was turning the key when my friend cleared her throat. I glanced up.
“Do you ever think you’ll write a story about us, then?” my friend asked.
“Perhaps,” I concluded, “but that’s a story still being written. And God knows what that means…”
My friends rolled their eyes and began to walk away.
Far off, their car started up and drove off into the night. It was almost quiet again. But as I listened, I heard that somewhere, someone was playing jazz.