Sanitizing the Story?

posted in: Culture Stress | 1

This week, Sarah Bessey shared the story of the traumatic birth of one of her children, and how instead of dealing with the trauma she turned it into a dramatic story to share in numerous venues.  That trauma caught up to her and eventually lead her to question how we tell stories about difficult events.  In the conclusion, she wonders “how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

These lines struck me, because I also have stories to tell, and they are often difficult stories.  With this blog and with other forms of communication, I tell my stories and others’ stories.  My photography tells stories.  I aspire to write, speak, and photograph with honesty and authenticity, clarity and vividness.  I want to honor others’ stories and tell them well, and not in any way that might be misconstrued or damaging to them.  I want to serve as a bridge between two cultures, helping people in each to understand the other.  This is a hard task.

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When I was preparing to come to China, I frequently told the story of how I made the decision to come.  It is a story full of God’s grace.  But it was really easy to tell it in a way that was a bit sanitized, full of clichés about God’s timing and my timing.  Even as I was so often telling this story, I was uncomfortable with the way it often denied how gut-wrenchingly horrible the months before this decision were.  Those months were dark.  They were full of rejection and discrimination.  I ended up working a part-time job for which I was oddly both over and under qualified.  I was living with my parents, even though I really didn’t want to be that adult child who hadn’t quite grown up and went running back to Mom and Dad (It turned out to be the fiscally responsible thing to do, and my parents are all about fiscal responsibility.  They were very gracious about it, and it was much better than I thought it might be.)

And then I had the opportunity to come to China.  Suddenly, the way to tell the story changed.  Instead of everything being terrible and wondering where God was, the story changed to look at how good God’s timing is and how you’ve been prepared for this.  And that’s true.  I still marvel at it all.  But it isn’t the whole story.  That grace doesn’t erase the heartache of the months that went before.  It was hard to tell the story in a brief way, sometimes to strangers, and capture the whole story.

And it is a struggle I face as I write and photograph life in Beijing, too.  I want to share struggles in a way that is honest but not complaining.  Not sanitized, but not overly dramatic.  I want to write from my scars and not my wounds, as has often been said about preaching (although I am not exactly sure who said it—probably several people).

But then the rubber hits the road and I need to write.  The questions come up.  For example, what do I say about the air quality?  It is a well publicized fact that that Beijing has air pollution problems.  There are days, and sometimes weeks, when the air is some level of unhealthy.  There are also days, and sometimes weeks, when the sky is blue and the air is fresh and clean.  Paying attention to air quality has become part of my life.  I have an app on my phone to check the current level.  I check that level before I open the windows, and if it is too high I keep them closed.  I have air purifiers in my apartment.  I try to lessen outside time when the number is high.  It is just a part of life.  So I wonder: how much do I write about this part of life?  Do I post photos taken when the air is not as good?  Admittedly, Beijing—and a photo–is much prettier when the sky is blue.  (Note: I picked a blue sky picture because I wasn’t sure what photo to use with this post and I’m feeling charitable the air quality has been good for the last two days while I was writing this post.)  The blue sky isn’t the whole story, but maybe it is the counterpoint to the story that the media tells.  But then maybe I’m not sharing about something that is sometimes a challenge I have to face.  If I only share photos of blue sky or never mention the bad air days, am I sanitizing the story?


Linked to Velvet Ashes “story” week.

  1. Amy Young

    Ruth, I read Sarah’s post too and that line stuck with me too. Thanks for linking with VA and helping all of us come to terms with some of the “other parts” of our stories. I appreciate you taking the risk. Amy 🙂

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