It Takes a Small Story to Make a Big Story Our Story
I grew up in a world of big stories. I am a granddaughter of “the greatest generation”—a generation that lived through the Great Depression and served in the Great War. Most of what I knew about my grandparents’ experiences, I learned in World History classes. I learned about the Holocaust and the atrocities the Nazi war machine wrought against Jewish people and against all of civilization as it marched in perfect formation across Europe. It was taught clinically, so matter-of-fact. I received the information that way too. The people who lost their lives, livelihood, family members—they were far away people. Another land at another time. Far removed from me and honestly, their collective story was not particularly relevant to my young life.
I memorized the dates and related statistics of events, and the names of the world leaders involved. I listened to my teachers and parroted back what I was taught—acing my exams, but missing the point entirely!
It was Joseph Stalin who said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” He was, sadly, right.
The collective nature of the big-picture story makes it meaningless. It sure did for me. But the small personal story, the one tucked deep into the larger story–that I can relate too. That I can internalize and learn from. That circumnavigates the wrinkly crevasses of my brain and touches a much deeper place. It touches the place where my humanity lives, where empathy rules and compassion overflows. Where the story and I merge in our vulnerability and weakness, in our determination and victory. It touches my soul, which clings to the values of right and wrong like a rock climber clings to the face of a cliff. Where fear and faith cohabitate, always wrestling for dominance.
The story of Maria Altmann is just such a story. Much like the story of Anne Frank or Corrie Ten Boom, Maria’s story, for me, is the personalization of a much bigger story, the meta-narrative of World War II. This weekend, I was completely captivated as I watched the BBC movie, Woman in Gold with my family. The little story inside the big story, made the big story more real. Personal. Meaningful. Relevant to my life.
Woman in Gold is the story of a woman whose family was torn from her during WWII and in that tearing she was stripped of several very important pieces of her family’s artwork. Most valuable to Maria was a painting of her beloved aunt Adele, that had become the centerpiece of the Austrian art gallery where it hung for over fifty years. In the movie, Maria fights for her rights to the artwork, a struggle about more than the restoration of the stolen heirlooms. She wanted the Austrian government to admit to their wrong-doing. They were culpable in the theft and she needed with every fiber in her being to hear them admit it. She needed someone to stand up and say, “Yes. We did this horrible thing to you. We’re sorry for our part in this ordeal and we’ll restore everything that was taken from you.” She needed the Austrian government to make it right, emotionally as well as physically.
And that’s where her story became my story. I have been in Maria’s situation. Our circumstances of course are vastly different. I wasn’t even born when evil was perpetrated against her family. But I’ve been treated horribly too. And I’ve wanted someone to stand up and say, “Yes. I did this horrible thing to you. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. Let me restore everything lost because of this situation.”
If you’ve lived a few years on Planet Earth, you’ve been hurt like that too. Hurt beyond the ability for another human being to make it right. We all have. That’s what makes Maria’s story our story. The universal emotions that come with injustice and the universal need to be vindicated.
When we write our vulnerable little story inside the meta-narrative of God’s story, we can shake our readers from complacency. We can disrupt their apathy and make them care about the bigger story—God’s story—the one they know about clinically, but haven’t experienced personally, until they found themselves in the words of our story.
In his book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner says, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity…that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.“
Your story is important too. Now go and write it!