House at 10 Marshall Street, oldest brick building in Boston. Photographer: Abdalian, Leon H., 1884-1967.
Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash
Our backstories tell the whole story
August 1, 2023
When I was a kid growing up in Boston, my cousins and I attended public school during the day and Chinese language school in the evening. Five days a week were very long days. On top of that we had Chinese language school on Saturday mornings! We didn’t have time for Saturday cartoons. This is my backstory that led my cousin and me playing hooky and hanging out at the Boston Commons one evening—where we were caught by one of my father’s coworkers! By the time I came home, my father gave me a spanking and told me without any discussion that when I go out in public, I represented him. I embarrassed him by playing hooky. My father’s backstory was never to bring shame to our family!
Everybody has a backstory that gives shape to our today’s story. In Boston, I often heard people claiming that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. If this was really true, there’s certainly many descendants from those 132 people!
My backstory in America began when my grandfather came to San Francisco in 1910. Prior to that, there’s a huge history of my family in China that is currently unfamiliar to me. With genealogy apps like Ancestry.com, many of us can discover our backstory. But when we take time to research our past and to sit and listen to the histories of others is when we truly begin to understand the background of where people are coming from.
During my seminary education years, the most important learning that I received was to understand the backstory of every subject matter. Form and textual criticism helped me understand biblical texts to be better understood today. Studying Hebrew and Greek transports us to the world of early writers. Early church history explained the existence of denominations and many branches of Christianity. Yesterday’s theological schisms inform today’s debates. To have a deep and wide idea of the church reassures us that while we may be steeped in knee-deep crap right now, in God’s time, all will be well.
Sadly, some people—perhaps fearful of the truth—have made the point that only the present is important. Dealing only with what is evident today is necessary. Their attitude is “Forget the past, forget the backstory, forget what our ancestors did because they don’t reflect who we are today.” It’s almost like our past makes no difference in who we are today. In the face of admitting racism exists, we don’t want to share in corporate guilt. Books are banned. Critical race theory (CRT), an approach to understanding how racism affects our society, is blamed for making some students feel guilty. I wonder if making students feel that they are subhuman, erased, or unworthy is any better.
Recently, I have been noticing that when someone speaks, the speaker begins by announcing their preferred pronoun, place of birth or upbringing, perhaps a particular leaning to help the hearers connect with what the speaker is about to say. The speaker is sharing a backstory. Thus, a much better exchange of thoughts and ideas is happening.
Discover your own backstory because it will permit you to empathize with others’ backstories. Take time to share your backstory with others, always being mindful to allow time for them to also share theirs.
Living and communicating in today’s polarized environment may become more effective and reconciling when we tell our backstories with one another first. Undoubtedly, it requires more time, but the results may be significantly more redemptive.
The Gospels tell the backstories of Jesus from four perspectives so that we would have a fuller picture of who Jesus is. There are two creation stories in Genesis. When Jesus met the woman of Samaria at the well in John 4, he knew her backstory and that enabled her to have a voice to share her encounter with Jesus with her neighbors back in town.
What is your backstory? And if you haven’t taken the time to discover your backstory, where might you begin? My guess is that you will understand who you are and why you believe strongly about some things is because you have been shaped and influenced by your past.
Thinking critically about all aspects of life is the making of a person with wisdom. Someone’s seemingly knee-jerk offense may be due to a wardrobe of fears and secrets. A church member’s questions about increasing church budget can be due to having lived in a state of poverty. A neighbor’s cynicism of religious life could be rooted in a former pastor’s hypocrisy. A person of color’s adamant demand for representation comes from having been denigrated and demeaned by others. What are their backstories that we have yet to hear that will grant us a fuller and more complete understanding of who they are and the world in which we all live?
If you find yourself in a situation when you really don’t understand someone’s words, actions, or motivations, seek after the person’s backstory, and pray that your questions will be received with grace. Listen attentively. Discover your own backstory because it will permit you to empathize with others’ backstories. Take time to share your backstory with others, always being mindful to allow time for them to also share theirs.
After learning the lesson that one of my backstories is that I am the son of my father, I have passed this story down to my own children. My more complete story begins when I include my backstory to share with my family, friends, and others, and they share theirs with me. To that end, we have the whole story.
Rev. Donald Ng was president, American Baptist Churches, USA, 2014-15, the first Asian American to serve in this elected position. For 17 years, he was senior pastor of the historic First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. He retired from full-time ministry in 2015.