“Every human life is worth a biography if only we could find the right
author.” Ruby Ewan, retired school teacher from Montana
Yesterday we held a memorial service for my mother, and David Kratz, the minister conducting the service, wove the quote above — which I love — into his commentary. In the minds of most people, fame or celebrity status are the only characteristics that entitle a person to a written biography. We have been taken captive by the idea that our lives are of little consequence or at least terribly dull when compared to the lives of movie stars, singers, politicians, curers of disease, and other well-known — and wealthy — people. In fact, all of us have many life stories that could inspire, amuse, and inform others, but rarely are we conscious of them, much less willing to share. And our typical social encounters don’t offer much opportunity for bringing up any topic deeper than a commentary on the latest hit movie or book.
The other point Rev. Kratz made while describing my mother, was that he could only share the piece of her life that he knew or had heard about, and that none of us could truly know anyone else completely. It would be hard not to agree. The people I worked with see in me a different person than my mother saw or my husband sees. Rarely are we aware of others’ thoughts, their dreams, their fears, even if we’ve been friends for years. These normally stay buried within.
Maybe if we started to see our lives and the lives of our friends as more worthy of biography, we could also learn more about them while they’re with us, instead of waiting to hear about a small slice of their lives described at a funeral. Earlier this year, a friend who was celebrating her birthday asked her guests not to bring gifts; instead she wanted to record a piece of their family history. Who in their lives influenced them the most? A parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle? And where did this influence take them? These interviews represented a significant departure from our normal conversations. I found them interesting, moving, and helpful in understanding how early life experiences shaped friends I met in adulthood but did not know at a younger age.
“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.” For anyone fifty or older, this Russian proverb might help each of us become “the right author” for at least one individual’s biography.