“The Danger of a Single Story”

A reflection by Rev. Abby King Kaiser

All of us do it.

Our kid walks up to us and opens their mouth and we don’t really listen because we assume we know what they will say.

We see a certain congregant coming and step into the bathroom because we can’t take one more comment like that.

We step into a classroom and dread sitting in the only empty seat because it is by that person.

And this has happened to all of us too.

The kid surprised us with something that was not whiny at all, but wise.

The congregant had gotten terrible news, and so when they finally cornered us, we were humbled by the news and immediately pastorally available.

The person we dreaded sitting next to became a dear friend.

God is constantly surprising us, even though we are stuck making assumptions based on what little we know about the world.

Chimamanda Adichie explores the concept of the stories we tell ourselves in her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” –which has been viewed more than 27 million times since it was posted in 2009.

In her talk, she explores the single stories that she has encountered—both stories others have told themselves about her or the identities she carries and the stories she has told herself about other people.

As I write this, I can’t believe how time has passed and how, in that time, I am still learning from this twelve-minute talk. I love to read. For me, reading novels is a spiritual discipline. I am a better person in so many ways when I read. So, a novelist talking about stories? That was all I needed to hear—but I also found myself needing to teach about healthy engagement of difference. Adichie tells us how to engage difference well, but part of how she does that is with grace, humor, and self-examination—thereby inviting her viewers to do the same. As a teacher, she set up the kind of self-examination we want from our students.

She also challenges me as a preacher. One of the first guest preachers we hosted in Common Ground was Rev. Damon Lynch, III, who spoke to us about synoptic vision. He was asking us to remember, each time we read the Gospels, to remember the many stories, the many perspectives about Jesus and his life. So often, we (or our traditions) tell single stories about who God is, who Jesus is, or what that means for the world. Rev. Lynch was asking us to go deeper and work harder—find the power in the multiple perspectives of the Gospels and liberate ourselves from single stories about God.

In the last year, coming back to Adichie’s powerful words reminds me of the importance of examining the stories that I tell myself in my head, carefully constructing the stories I tell from the pulpit, and thoughtfully choosing the stories that I listen to with my heart.

Every fall, I can’t help but to tell myself stories about who the new students on campus will become. Will this one be preaching at Common Ground as a senior? Will that one run a student organization? Will this one get that “dream job” out of undergrad? Every fall, God humbles me. Those stories I told four years prior are never the stories that come true. The beauty of this habit is that sometimes I notice the way God exceeds anything we could imagine or dream on our own. The danger is letting my single stories hold back someone I work with because I have made a prejudgment about what they will (or more specifically won’t) become.

This is the danger. As people of faith, single stories keep us from tapping into the stories God is writing. As people of faith, single stories can keep us supporting oppressive systems, often without realizing it. As people of faith, single stories can keep our relationship with God superficial.

What single stories do you tell yourself? When were you brought face-to-face with one of those stories that simply wasn’t true? When have you experienced others telling single stories about you? How, with God’s help, did you manage that? Listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s words and interrogate your own stories.

Watch The Danger of a Single Story.