Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Point of the Story

Image by Oran Viriyincy, via Flickr
Ten years ago I was teaching my memoir-writing class “Making History” at a local Senior Center. It covered the decades of the thirties, forties and fifties, and encouraged the participants to share their stories of those years. One of the topics we talked about was the enormous changes in the status of Americans of color during those decades (Jackie Robinson comes to mind), although all the people in the class were white. But they had a lot to say – racism has always affected us all, no matter what our color. Here’s one of the stories told that day, by a white woman almost 80 years old.

She was 21 in 1947, an office worker in downtown San Francisco. Every day she took the bus to and from work. The bus was always crowded. One evening she boarded the bus and was lucky to find a space on a bench seat facing the aisle, next to an elderly black woman. At the next stop, a man got on the bus. He was a middle-aged white gentleman, probably in his early fifties, wearing the traditional businessman’s attire of tailored suit and hat, and carrying an umbrella. He made his way down the aisle, and stopped directly in front of the office girl and the elderly woman. After a few seconds of staring at them, he suddenly raised his umbrella above his head and brought it down – thwack! – across the shoulder of the old lady.

The bus became absolutely quiet. No one said anything, not even the old woman who had been struck. She stared straight ahead. As if taking their cue from her, the rest of the passengers stared straight ahead too. No one said or did anything. But inside the office girl, a tortured debate was going on.
What should she do? What could she do? What he did was wrong, of course, but sometimes that was the way things were. But maybe she should say or do something. Say what? Do what? What good would it do? What if the man struck her too? What if she made it worse?

She was still debating internally when the old woman got off the bus at the next stop. An audible sigh of relief from the rest of the passengers could be heard.

And that’s the end of the story from 1947. But in 2004, the now-78-year-old ex-office worker looked around the room. “I should have done or said something,” she said. “At least I should have asked her if she was okay, or put my arm around her. That’s what I would do now. But at the time I didn’t know I could.”

She added, “I’ve never told that story before. I guess I tried not to think about it, because it made me feel so bad.”

For fifty-seven years she had carried that untold story around with her, a story that made her feel guilty and ashamed. But her guilt and shame is not the point of the story. She is forgivable, after all – a young woman, unexpectedly confronted with an evil act, is momentarily paralyzed by indecision. We can understand her reaction. I hope that by telling her story, she has forgiven herself.

And of course, she actually did nothing wrong. She simply did nothing.

And that’s the point of the story – doing nothing. I bet all of us have had moments when we’ve seen something we know to be wrong, but we did nothing. Because we were afraid, or because we didn’t know what to do, or – God forgive us – because we were too busy.

But doing nothing has a price. Fifty-seven years of guilt and shame, unacknowledged but still alive and festering under the skin. Fifty-seven years.

I hope that woman was transformed by telling her story. But even if she wasn’t, I was transformed by listening to it. Now I begin nearly every morning with a quiet vow: Today, I will not do nothing.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 8 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 40 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.

10 comments :

  1. Excellent point! How sad for that lady, but I understand the sense of guilt and shame she felt.
    Sometimes, finding the courage to speak up is difficult. It is especially so when you are young, or when the rest of society gives tacit approval to certain actions and beliefs.
    I think it can get easier though as you get older and wiser, and if you are willing to be empathetic, or at least sympathetic to others.

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    1. I too have found it easier to be courageous the older I get. I wouldn't want to be judged by the decisions (or non-decisions) I made when I was 21. Which is why I found this woman so forgivable.

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  2. Terrific post, Kim, and a great reminder that we should not just sit back and let injustice go on. And to put the writing spin on this, it would make a good short story. Imagine the ghost of that old lady coming back to haunt that arrogant man years later ala Marley and Scrooge.

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    1. What a great idea, Maryann. I've heard a lot of great stories in my classes; maybe there's a collection coming one of these days.

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  3. Today I too will not do nothing. I trust the woman found some solace in telling her story.

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    1. Sharing your stories is one of the most powerful ways to heal that I know. And not only for the storyteller, but for the reader and/or listener. Even though it was 10 years ago, I can still see that old woman's face as she told us her story, and somehow see the young woman still there behind her eyes. I also remember the faces of the listeners. Powerful stuff.

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  4. Stories have the powers of transformation, education, elucidation. If we stop reading, writing, and sharing stories, we will bring back the dark ages. Writing down our personal narratives is an immensely powerful self-healing tool.

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    1. And not just self-healing, but other-healing as well. You are so right, Diana.

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  5. Today I will not do nothing, and tomorrow I will not do nothing, and all the days after that the same. At my age (which some might call advanced, but I prefer to think of it as the downside of middle age), I can be bolder and more outspoken about the wrongs that still plague society. Maybe it's the wisdom of years or perhaps the gray hair or maybe even the realization that the time remaining to speak up is dwindling. No matter...I have the power of the moment, and I have the mightiness of the pen (as well as a sturdy soapbox). Standing up for what is right at the moment may touch only those within hearing distance; however, converting the incident into a well-crafted short story can touch many. Great post, Kim.

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  6. Linda, excellent point about writers and the mightiness of the pen touching many. I am glad you are not doing nothing.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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