In my mind’s eye a memory floats into view, a visit I made to the King of the West African town I lived in as a young child. My mother, who was home-schooling us at the time, had taken me and my younger sister to admire the courtly palace architecture. We were looking up at the crenulations, discussing how we’d describe this in a write up later, when a couple of men approached us.
My mother greeted the men and, after a brief interchange, she relayed to us (I had lost my grasp of the local tongue – my birth tongue by this point, an ever-present loss) that we had been invited to greet the King, who was in fact in residence that day. Slightly stunned, my mother gestured to us that we were to follow and take her lead.
Upon entering the room, she observed the King resting on a throne, while the men of the court were prostrated on mats around him, as was the custom. My mother promptly sank to her knees, prostrating herself and touching her head to the floor in respectful greeting. We followed suit.
The poignancy of this memory lies for me in the awareness I held, even then, that we had been granted a peculiar honour, and in all probability due to our Whiteness, but that my mother was not going to let that interfere with her attempt to signal her total submission to the rightful author of that scene.
Another person’s story is sacred ground, and this belief is absolutely core to what I do.
This is not to say I don’t make errors, fail to tread as lightly as I should or to notice the awesome beauty of the landscape I am entering. I do. And I understand that my grief at my own clumsiness is nothing to the grief of any party I may have bruised.
Before I can ally with anyone as they make sense of their stories, I have to learn how to become a hearer of stories.
The fact that I’ve written that last phrase in the passive voice makes me momentarily uncomfortable. I recall the countless English essays I received back covered with the red penned critique, “passive voice, correct!”
But I won’t change it here.
Why stick with “a hearer of stories”? We more often refer to people as “listeners”, people who “actively listen”. Why am I stubbornly refusing to correct my phrasing?
Because a hearer of stories is passive.
In taking a knee to the King that day, my mother demonstrated how to position myself when my story intersects with another person’s. We had been invited into another’s story, and we took a knee. This experience still informs how I view my role as Therapist to Third Culture Kids.
This is what a hearer of stories does; we enter upon invitation. We acknowledge the rightful author in front of us, and we submit to their authorship. It is an unearned honour to receive, to hear, to bear witness to another’s story. We are invited to enter their world for a time. And we do this on our knees. There is no other position to take. Take a knee.