by Susan McBeth
Life stories – they are all around us. We read them in New York Times bestselling biographies like Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. We relish the memoirs that reveal an intimate peek into lives of high-profile people like Tina Fey in Bossypants, or LIFE by Keith Richards, and even into the lives of not-so-high-profile people like Theresa Weir in The Orchard or Amy Finley’s How to Eat a Small Country.
We tell our own stories by writing memoirs and keeping journals and researching family genealogy. We keep scrapbooks and photo albums and Pinterest boards. WeTweet and post Facebook messages and send text messages that share a little piece of our story, minute-by-minute as it is occurring. We telephone and meet with our friends and family and colleagues to share an exciting or devastating or interesting event that happens in our life story.
We are even fascinated by the lives of people who we’ve never heard of before their stories were portrayed on television reality shows. Millions tune in every week to follow the life stories of the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and the Biggest Losers. While many may express disdain over the value of these shows, what the ratings show is that there clearly is fascination with these life stories.
I am a firm believer that every one of the approximately seven billion people on this planet has a life story to tell. Some are tragic, some remarkable, some sensationalized. Some stories are short, some long, some simple, some complex. While we will never know all these stories, that certainly does not diminish their worth. And what I do know is that with every life story I discover, I discern something of value and relevance to my own life. So if that is the case, then why wouldn’t I want to learn as many life stories as I can, in my continuing efforts to become a better person?
That is exactly why I decided to take on the “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” challenge. It’s not an official challenge, but one I am undertaking after being inspired by the film that gets
my Oscar vote for the best film of 2012. Young Oskar is convinced that his father, who was killed in one of the Twin Towers during 9/11, left him a secret final message, so the boy sets off on a mission throughout New York City to unearth this connect to his father. While he never finds any message from his father, what he does garner through his visits with dozens of complete
strangers is a bigger understanding of the world that allows him to put his own loss in perspective.
So how will I undertake my challenge? Quite honestly, I don’t have a game plan, but I know that if I keep myself open to opportunities, they will present themselves. Take Edna, a woman I met earlier this week while a friend and I were having dinner in a local restaurant. Edna was dining alone and I found myself wondering if she was lonely and would be grateful for an offer of friendship, or if she was reveling in sought-out solitude and would resent our intrusion. My friend and I discussed our options, and I was so proud of my shy friend for stepping outside her comfort zone and accepting the challenge.
Edna declined our offer but stopped by our table to thank us as she left, and we spent a few minutes chatting. And while we never learned Edna’s life story, I would bet that my friend and I will now be part of her life story, as she tells her friends about two strangers who invited her to dinner. While it was really my friend who stood up to the challenge, I felt as if I, too, had reaped the benefits of our offer. Whose life story will I learn next? I don’t have a clue, and that’s the exciting part!