“You are so brave for sharing your story.”
The words are there, on every blog. You just have to search a little, scroll through the comments, and you’ll see them: the gratitude for a story shared, the praise for the blogger’s willing vulnerability. And to see the words there amidst the other comments—the brutal critiques; the personal insults; the moralizing and demonizing—you have to agree. It is brave. To open yourself and your story up to such scrutiny, to the anonymous attacks of whatever troll might come along. Such gutsy authenticity is risky.
But it isn’t the greatest risk.
I work in publishing, so I know something about what it means to tell a story, to help someone process their experiences and put them into words—words that will heal, words that will help other people—maybe many other people. I spend my days online and in books, knee-deep in the power of the shared and written word. I believe in it. And not just as an abstract.
The last two years have been rough. Really rough. The hardest ones yet. There were moments that nearly destroyed me. At night, on my own and in my pain, I often found solace in other’s words. I read blogs, books, stories, comments. I sought connection with their experiences, the knowledge that someone else had been there and survived.
I will always write. I will always read. Yet, in the end, it wasn’t the blinking screen or the paper and ink stories that I will most remember about these past few years. What I will remember—what saved me, transformed me, and got me through—were the hours on my couch with friends, the countless coffee dates, the hugs and smiles, the prayers and tears.
Not that such conversations were always beautiful. Sometimes I got blank stares, sometimes clichéd responses. A few friends stopped calling after a while. Fledgling friendships crumbled under the weight of my pain. There were others who simply couldn’t go there with me—or who gave up long before I didn’t need them anymore. I had one friend straight up tell me he didn’t care about my healing journey—only about the mistakes I’d made. It hurt. It still hurts.
And that’s the thing about embodied vulnerability—about in-the-flesh authenticity—it’s risky. Believe me, I get it. I get how hard it is to look a friend in the face and give voice to your shame, to your secrets, to your deep fears. They may not understand. They may walk away. They may rant, or yell, or judge you unfairly. They may never speak to you again. They may slander you.
Or they may hug you. They may take your face in their hands and tell you they love you. They may cry with you. They may ask you all the right questions. They may encourage you to get help. They may crack open and share their own pain because they have just been waiting to know someone else has been there, that someone else understands.
“Authenticity” has become something of a buzzword recently. We talk a lot about the value of vulnerability and honesty. We praise people who are willing to put words to their pain. We recognize the value in making sure honest stories get told, in using them to push past the veil of shame and fear that keeps many hidden. And by all means, let us keep sharing. Let us keep putting our stories out there for the benefit of the many.
But true authenticity isn’t telling your story to the anonymous masses. It’s living it with a few people. Two, or three, or maybe ten. Present, and in person, and with all of the embodied risk and reward honest encounters afford—the risk of personal rejection, of seeing that flash of disappointment in the eyes and on the face of this person whose acceptance means the world to you. The reward of a hug, of a light touch on the hand as you cry through confession … of being truly known by this person whose love means the world to you.
And maybe you do need to share online first. Maybe you need the anonymity of a comment section to process your feelings. Maybe you need the community present in a forum like the one TWLOHA offers—to know other people somewhere in the world resonate with your pain.
Or maybe you’ll choose to share online last—because you feel compelled to get your story out there, hopeful that others might benefit from your lessons learned.
Both of those are fine. They are legitimate outlets offered by a digital age. But your life is not lived online only. You are not anonymous, and your story is not disembodied. It exists in you, and with you, and through you.
You—vulnerable, honest, and present—are a gift to those around you. And it takes courage to offer that gift; it takes true authenticity.
Roxanne Stone is vice president of publishing at Barna Group and the general editor of the FRAMES series. She is the former editorial director for RELEVANT and has worked in publishing for more than a decade, serving as an editor at Christianity Today, Group Publishing, Q Ideas and This is Our City. Follow Roxanne on Twitter: @roxyleestone.