I met a young man whom I will call “Roger” this past July when I had the opportunity to do some painting at a boys’ home. The facility housed young men who were either abandoned by their ‘parents’ because they could not or would not take care of them. I also had the opportunity to learn more about Roger in 20 minutes than I have learned about some people whom I have known for ten years. I am compelled to decipher why he told me story after story about his life, behavior, personality, and beliefs, despite only having spoken with me previously for no more than two minutes.
As one of the founding members of “Culture of Connections,” I am on a quest to develop what we have been calling a “Connection Theory.” In a previous blog I discussed how there are actually two genuine connection theories already being used; one is in the field of psychology and the other is in the field of mathematics. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to label our thoughts and strategies about how people feel a sense of belonging as Connection Theory? So, without further delay…
This latest portion of developing a connection theory involves unraveling why Roger continued to tell me so much information even though we just met. I have a series of arguments I can share, and found that working on this latest “puzzle” also helped me uncover what is probably going to be a very important pillar in our connection theory. After writing so many blogs and talking with dozens of people about connections I have figured something out: I am not as interested in knowing why we feel the need to matter- I have accepted it as fact. That’s it. That’s the pillar. You see, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people feel they have to be part of a bigger picture or feel a need to contribute to something that helps others. But, the reasons why we need to matter seemed to overshadow all of the other revealing information I have been gathering. So, I am going to put less emphasis on seeking a reason why we need to matter for now.
I still need to know why Roger told me his stories, however. The stories were actually little tidbits from his fractured and fragmented life. That is as about as clear a picture I can paint about his life- that it is fractured and fragmented. Stories about his athletic abilities, medical concerns, relationships, and his experiences in school ranged from funny to sad to hardly believable. On the other hand, based on his residence in a boys’ facility, maybe some of these stories did happen to him. Let’s take a look at some possible reasons why Roger told me his stories.
First of all, I think Roger felt a need to be recognized, validated, categorized, and perhaps even judged. While we don’t generally equate being judged as positive, it is still a form of being recognized. This short list of needs all point to one thing: we must need others to “push” against.
In physics, if there is no resistance you can’t really move. Imagine you are sitting in an office chair with wheels on the bottom, and the wheels are on a smooth wooden floor. If your feet are off of the floor, no amount of “pushing” the air in front of you with your hands will cause you to move backward. “Pushing against the air” does not provide enough resistance to move you. Sharing our stories with other people provides a resistance that can move us. Face it: when you tell a story, you are seeking acceptance and feedback from others. Roger knows this too.
When others listen to our stories they serve as sounding boards. It works just like an echo. Without a wall, building, or the side of a hill or mountain, the sounds we make won’t come back to us. They will simply propagate, and we won’t know if we’ve made an impact. We apparently have a need to hear ourselves, perhaps to get a sense of where we really are.
Secondly, I think Roger needed to get his stories out. It’s not likely that the dozen or so other residents in the facility would listen “enough” for Roger. He was articulate, funny, and clever, but his peers simply would not be able to process his stories. Having to keep his stories locked inside would mean he wouldn’t have proof that the stories were accepted by others. He needed to see and hear my responses to his stories to have “proof” about their reality. As I was putting my thoughts together for this blog, I was writing outside at a picnic table early in the morning. I heard a bird with a distinct call, and repeated it every 30 seconds. I thought it would never end as I was trying to concentrate on writing coherent thoughts! It seemed like that little bird just “had to get it out.” It would also seem that Roger had a lot in common with my chirping friend.
My third thought about why Roger told us his stories is that it served as his offering to our team of workers. What else did Roger have? Was he going to invite us into the boys’ facility for a light lunch? Hardly. He couldn’t show us his video game collection, or what other belongings he had. There’s no way that could happen at a boys’ facility. He knew it and so did we. But he could offer us stories. I sensed that he wanted to show us that he was worthy of us, but also that we were worthy of his stories. Telling his stories served, in part, as a way of thanking us for painting at the facility.
The fourth and final observation is that Roger seemed to be auditioning for a part or applying for a position. Each story seemed to be told with a sense of urgency, and a search for acceptance. At one point in the morning, one of the members of our group happened to look away while Roger was in the middle of a story. Not unlike a fourth grader, he gently grabbed his listener’s forearm to regain his attention. How unnerving would it be if your job interviewer walked out of the room as you answered an important question? In his mind, perhaps Roger was interviewing for acceptance and was threatened when the listener looked away.
There are a lot of Rogers out there, and I don’t mean boys who live in facilities. Help others hear their echo. Be the ‘push’ they need to realize where they are, and accept their gift of story.
-Chuck Benway, co-founder Culture of Connections