“What’s the hardest thing?” It’s my question. I’m a question-asker by profession; that is to say, it’s in my job description to go grab coffee with people, to sit across from them and let them tell me their stories, to occasionally pipe up and ask about the hardest things. You may think that people wouldn’t want to talk about the hardest things, but they do. They always suck in a breath, as if they already knew the answer but weren’t going to put it on the table unless I asked. And I always do. Sometimes these hardest things are easy for me to hear. The answer to “What’s the hardest thing about being in the show business?” is traveling, and that doesn’t me sweat. Suitcases, homesickness, hotel hopping—not a piece of cake, but it comes with the territory. “What’s the hardest thing about having breast cancer?” is something else though. I don’t want to ask because I both can imagine and can’t, but it comes with the territory, so I do.
I also ask them about the best things, and you’d think they never shut up about these things, but they do. It’s never the things we think we dream of—well, I shouldn’t say never. Sometimes their answers seem cliché, and it’s my job to wrangle their clichés into something real that doesn’t cheapen their stories, for none of us have clearance stories and I won’t tell it that way (or at least I do my best not to.) Sometimes they throw “just” in front of the best thing—“Well, it’s just getting to live my dream, I guess,” and they look at me, wondering if they’ve said the right thing, but everything they say is the right thing and I want to jump up and down and say “THAT IS THE BEST THING, DON’T YOU KNOW IT!” but they do know it, they do, that’s why they call it the best thing.
I ask these questions because I’m a storyteller, and the stories I tell are real. I ask the questions to find the story, and I tell them I’m a storysharer, that I won’t write their stories on the walls of a cave where no one can read them. I tell them their stories matter, because people need to know they’re not alone. People need to know, I say, that your hardest thing and their hardest thing are the same, that no matter how isolating it feels, someone else understands. I tell them it’s my honor to write it—to arrange it in a way that lets the reader take hold of it effortlessly—and I tell them that because it’s true.
They never ask me about my hardest thing, because we’re sitting at a table and I’m the one taking notes and asking more questions, nodding them along, asking more about that. And I’m not their counselor, goodness knows, and I guess we’re not really friends, and when they tell me their hardest things, it wouldn’t help if I said, “Oh, yes, I have a hardest thing, too.” So they don’t ask, and I don’t tell, but sometimes, I want them to understand that I understand, sometimes, in some ways.
If they asked, I might say this: The hardest thing about mornings is waking up, no? But the best thing is being awake, for it’s where the cake and the love are. Or maybe it’s the way the morning air is different from any other air the rest of the day. That one’s a tie. The hardest thing about death is losing someone, but the best thing is finding all of the people who are still here. The hardest thing about moving to a new city is that everything is different, but the best thing is the adventure that is all those streets you don’t know yet (best thing #2 is my GPS.) The hardest thing about living away from the friends and family who make up my people is being away from them, but the best thing about this is that first minute when you burst back into one another’s worlds, usually loudly. The hardest thing about loving Jesus is letting Jesus love you, but then, that is also the best thing. If they asked me about writing, I would tell them it’s kind of the same–the hardest thing is the writing, especially about their hard things, but it’s also always the best thing.
I always ask these two questions, hardest first, best one last. I sit with a latte blowing steam up at my face, and I look them in their eyes, and I smile a little. And I don’t say this, but sometimes I want to remind them I’m not just a writer, not just a storyteller or storysharer, but I am a life-liver, and that the hardest part about life is all of the hardest things, but the best thing is how it stretches over those with all of the best things. The hardest things and the best things all rammed up against one another, this is what life is like. I ask about the hardest thing, and they let their eyes drop, and I wait, for the hardest thing is important. I ask about the best thing, and sometimes they shrug, or smile, or can’t put their fingers on it.
I hardly ever say that I’m a journalist when people ask what I do. Usually I tell them I’m a writer, but then they cock their heads and ask what I write. “I tell stories,” I say, pausing, and then I clarify: “I tell real stories, about the hard things and the good things in life.” And I know there are people who save lives—how beautiful is that? I know there are people who mold little minds—these are some of my best friends. I know there are people who do all of these great things for the world, but when I get to say I’m a writer, a storyteller, exposer of the hard things, documenter of the good things, arranger of words so that you reach out and say, “Me too,” well, that—that is the best thing.
Special thanks to this song for singing me through this post.