I have a horrible secret: It is really difficult for me to listen to stories.
The reason has always escaped me. Now, listening to one story, I think I understand why this simple act is so difficult for me. I am afraid.
I am afraid of what the story might do to me emotionally and intellectually. I am afraid that, by the end, I may be permanently changed, and perhaps not for the better. I am equally afraid I won't be changed. What a waste of time, to listen to a story that doesn't change you.
Here's the story that taught me this not-so-small tidbit about myself. It is a story told by Hasan Minhaj about going (or not going) to the prom. In a heart-felt story, Hasan tackles fear, bigotry and one of the quintessential markers of adolescence: the prom.
The story hit me right between the eyes. A nerd, the girl of his dreams, a mandate to go to the prom and immigrant parents who are having none of it -- this I understand.
The story is part of the homework we've assigned for a class I am co-teaching at the d.school called "Sticky Stories". The underlying premise of the class is that the element that makes stories truly stick is not that they manipulate listeners to act in particular ways, but that they engender empathy. In other words, the more able you are to empathize with the teller, the more likely the story is to stick.
I couldn't empathize more with Hasan, and his story of prom pressures.
So, his story stuck, and it stuck hard.
That moment when Hasan's father tells him (loosely translated) that he'll break his son's face in response to a request to go to prom -- I understand that moment, that fear. It thrilled and saddened me to be so close to someone I had never met.
That's why I am so reticent to invest in listening to stories (again, I recognize that, given my field, this is a horrible thing to admit). What if they do stick? Will I be able to recover in time for my next meeting? What if they don't stick? Did I just waste my time?
My rational brain knows I didn't waste the time, and that I can recover in time for my next meeting. Even if I don't, I have a great story to tell. But the fear is still there. It's not easy to open your mind and your heart -- to sit quietly with someone else's suffering or triumph. But do it, and you realize that it's so fundamentally necessary -- so essentially human.
It's worth overcoming the fear to let a story try to stick to you.
In case you're wondering we also assigned students to listen to Malcolm Gladwell's "Tough Newsroom" and Sarah Vowell's "You Can Have Your Cave and Eat It Too". I have not listened to Sarah's story. But I will.