tell me about life

I walked up to the house, as I had decades before.  I didn’t know if they still lived there, where we had known each other so long ago.

I knocked on the door and familiar faces appeared.  The couple welcomed me in and we sat down.

She said, “Tell me about life.”

I don’t remember how I responded.  No doubt I offered the standard stuff — the chronological recitation of what happened when, where the kids are now, and all of that.  My ego was probably busy trying to make it all look as good as I could, screenwriting an heroic biopic on the spot.

While the rest of the conversation is lost to time, those four words — “Tell me about life” — have stuck with me.  I think about them often, although I don’t feel like I’m much better prepared to reply to them than I was that day.

It’s not something you can do in a few minutes.

Life is complex and overwhelming and wonderful and weird and [insert a thousand or so other adjectives].  The world goes on doing its own thing, our human actions and perceptions are perplexing on their own, and we’re left to try to make sense of it all.

We craft our stories to tell others and to tell ourselves.  In doing so, we can get caught in cycles of unwarranted positivity (when we can’t seem to be honest about our daily realities) or consuming negativity (when we don’t acknowledge our blessings and the small joys all around us).

As I saw in a recent posting:  “The thing to remember about the world, though, is that it ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, gives and takes, and is by its very nature somewhat unreliable. . . . No one is exempt from the twists and turns of fate, which may, at any time, take the possessions, situations, and people we love away from us.”

We rarely can open up about those losses with each other.  That is especially true for men.

A recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail was titled, “I love you, man: Why do men have such a difficult time maintaining friendships?”  While no human characteristic is rigidly defined by gender, there is plenty of evidence that the author’s experience is very common.  Most men lack the expansive networks (and expressive interactions) that many women have.

A large percentage of us — men and women alike — probably never get to have the real “heart-to-hearts” that we could use.  Small talk and busyness mark our days, and we don’t engage regarding many of the most important issues on our minds.  Vulnerability doesn’t come easily.

Terry Gross has been interviewing people on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” for more than forty years.  She says that the best conversation starter is, “Tell me about yourself.”

Think about what you would say in response to that if you were in a work environment.  Or at a ballgame.  Or at a church event.  We tailor our characterizations of ourselves to the situation (and the people) at hand.

Who are you, really?  That’s a hard one, and talking candidly about yourself with someone who won’t judge you can help put things in perspective.  Opening up, we reveal our humanity, cast off some of those unrealistic expectations, and acknowledge our collective challenge.

In the words of Andre Dubus, “we don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”

Tell me about yourself.  Tell me about life.

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