Both Sides of the Story
Like a two-sided coin, we must always remember that there is more to others than their single story
The TED Talk by a Nigerian-born female author (“The Danger of a Single Story”) educated in British schools speaks about how others define her identity and personhood by a “single story.”
People think all folks from the continent of Africa are the same, even though it houses more than 1.2 billion people with 3,000 ethnicities, 2,100 spoken languages and 54 countries. Considering all persons from Africa as having the same “single story” fails to account for the breadth, width and diversity of experiences, wealth and education of the majority who differ significantly from ingrained stereotypes.
The speaker mentioned that people think she is poor, illiterate, knows only tribal music and lives in a grass hut, unknowledgeable of current social events or cultural trends. Instead, she comes from a middle-class family with wide experiences of different global cultures.
We typically define and judge others by a single story, one created about who and what they are that provides a simple, easy summary of the person based on the perceptions of the group to which they belong (called a stereotype).
Why? Social psychologists say because we are “cognitive misers”; it’s easier to think that all “those people” are the same rather than realizing their uniqueness. It takes less effort to just assign people a stereotype than to get to know the person’s identity — to uncover, know and understand their story.
The TED talk speaker/author said, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
St. Vincent de Paul, in the mid-1600s, wrote of an experience within Paris that reminds me of the single-story metaphor. Vincent related that he was walking along the cobblestones when he noticed a rough, dirty, scratched coin lying in the street of the city. He stopped and picked up the coin and turned it over. On the other side of the worn coin was a shiny, golden, perfect-looking coin!
St. Vincent wrote that we often judge others by only looking at and knowing one side of the issue (the single story) and forget that there are always two sides to the coin — two sides of a person — two (actually, even more) stories to the person.
Fast forward to a modern poet and artist — Phil Collins. This singer/songwriter who peaked in the 1990s penned a popular song called “Both Sides of the Story” (1993). He reminds us to examine both sides of people’s stories. The unhoused, the inner-city Black/brown youth, the unwed mother, the alcoholic/drug user, etc., each have stories. Collins reminds us that we judge others on incomplete information, jumping to decisions and conclusions about people based on stereotypes; we need to hear both sides of the story. Unfortunately, it is easier to just base our understanding of the person from a single story and not the complexity of her/his life.
You, like me, may be a victim of a negative single-story label.
I am of Italian American descent, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. People see me as loud, hotheaded, always eating pasta, unable to speak clear English, and that my family is involved in illegal activities. When they don’t hear a strong Brooklyn accent, they are surprised; when I tell them I did not grow up eating lots of pasta (but ate polenta), they are surprised. When I tell them there is no mafia in my family (my dad was made an offer, and he refused and lived), they are surprised. OK, we are loud and emotional, but we like to say we “speak with passion!”
‘I Am Catholic’
A different negative single-story label appears when people hear, “I am Catholic.” They think I worship saints and the Blessed Mother, follow a spiritual leader (the pope) who never makes mistakes (infallible), and that I follow a punishing supreme being man who sits up in the clouds (also known as God).
Moreover, when people hear that I am a deacon, they think I am either a “junior priest” or “just a nice helper to Father.” They think I am some holy roller (think Ned Flanders, from “The Simpsons”), a laity member of the Catholic Faith with “special powers.” And, because Catholic clergy are male, people believe I dislike/exclude women as second class.
It’s the single story that people hold. They fail to discover and examine both sides of the story — that is, to turn the coin over.
Yes, I am Catholic. That means — as my cross reminds me every time I see it, every time I make the sign on my chest, every time I carry it — I am called to bring all people to the compassion, empathy, mercy, love of a faith that is not just between myself and that supreme being (God), but includes finding community.
Yes, I am a deacon. That means I try as hard as I can to follow the principles and values that my faith calls me to model (compassion, empathy, mercy, love). I live in a community with a family, a wife, a job or career. I strive to be that follower of Christ who serves.
More than a Single Story
As Catholic deacons, men of faith, we must always remember that there are more to others than their single story. We must, like St. Vincent’s two-sided coin, see something beyond a typical stereotype or convenient label. True, it’s hard, and sometimes we will fail. However, our failure is greater if we never take the time and effort to explore more about people than their single story.
Christ understood that; he tried to teach others to be inclusive, to remember they are not perfect and without sin, that all people deserve dignity and compassion. Yes, it takes cognitive effort to look and think beyond the stereotypical single story we hold of others. As deacons, if we preach, we must speak with words and actions that all are welcomed in this place.
Each of us is more than a single story — we are more than a scratched coin. There are two sides to our story. May we continue to find and share those diverse and complex sides of each person’s own story.
DEACON JOSEPH R. FERRARI, Ph.D., serves in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is the St. Vincent de Paul Distinguished Professor of Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. He also gives deacon retreats and is a motivational speaker.
One Body, Many Parts
St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 writes: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
In its application to Christ, Paul writes later in that same chapter: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts” (vv. 27-31).