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Between the Lines

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: January 25th, 2024

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
-Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

There is a scene in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan where the atrocity of war has two American soldiers from the 2nd Ranger unit in a heated confrontation. The men are at the boiling point of violence as they try to process their overwhelming emotions. They are several days into the unfathomable brutality they have experienced, and inflicted, since landing at Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day invasion in June of 1944.

They have survived, but at what cost?

Their leader, Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, steps in to defuse the situation by telling a story. Over the course of their deployment with the Rangers, the men have created a betting pool about their Captain’s occupation back home. They have concocted many stories individually, none of which are close to reality. To everyone’s stunned surprise, he quietly discloses that he is a teacher of English Composition and coaches the baseball team at a small Pennsylvania high school.

Why are they so shocked at his revelation? Maybe it’s because they have only experienced him as a war-time company commander. They have counted on his leadership through the most searingly horrific experiences of their lives. To them, he is a brave and resolute soldier and leader of men. As they stormed the beach at Normandy against all odds of survival, their Captain Miller kept going and kept them going. Perhaps the juxtaposition of thoughtful teacher and war-hardened military officer just does not fit. Even Captain Miller, at this point, wonders if he has changed so much that his wife will not recognize him when he returns. Captain Miller’s story gives the men pause to consider who they are, and who they are becoming.

Like the men of the Ranger unit, the stories that we tell, or think, or believe, are often how we make sense of the world around us. We all have internal narratives. These narratives are fundamental to human experience. Stories help us share information and create connections. There is so much power in “yeah, me, too.” It’s why we cry at sad movies and laugh at ridiculous situations. We’ve all been there.

What we sometimes forget is that the stories that we believe may not be complete, or accurate, or true. Most of us are the heroes of our own stories and quite possibly the villain in the narratives of others. Maybe we are a little of both.

It’s true. And we don’t always get the storytelling right.

Have you ever found yourself disconnected from someone and internally created a complicated explanation (which they know nothing about) as the relationship fades? They may see the situation one way, while you see it completely differently. Yes, we make up stories. Or we may blame the other person for a perceived offense and never tell them, leaving the connection severed or at least frayed. We spend more energy being annoyed, hurt, or even angry, in our one-sided version of the story when a conversation and different perspective might have helped.

Sometimes the pace of our lives makes it easy to let time pass without resolution, and we allow the connection to languish. Most of us hope to be forgiven for not being as attentive to our relationships as we could be. Some of us are willing to reach out and try again. Others have entered witness protection and are living in Tulsa with Sly Stallone. (This is where I tell you that if you’re going to make up a story, make it a good one.)

I was reminded of the power of storytelling recently while listening to the podcast Alive and Well Enough, created and performed by the actor Jeff Daniels. Jeff Daniels is well-known, but I have to say that before I listened to this highly entertaining series, I could not have told you much about his body of work. Pretty sure I confused him with that other actor, Jeff Bridges. Yeah, I know. Popular culture escapes me sometimes.

One of the things that truly struck me about the podcast is the idea that we are all “stuck in between ‘once upon a time’ and ‘the end.’” Tell me that‘s not a powerful thought. Not only are his stories fabulous and funny, but his range is astounding. Is he Harry the stoner from Dumb and Dumber, or is he Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird? Is he Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Gettysburg or is he a singer/songwriter who wrote The Old Guy Blues? Seriously, who is this guy?

My take is that he has spent a lifetime trying to figure it out. As the podcast progresses, we find out that he knows he is all of them. Some people will see him only as the guy from Dumb and Dumber, some will think of him as the principled and justice-seeking Atticus Finch, but he has spent time with the best and worst of each character he portrays. With many successes and more than his share of stumbles, he has learned a bit about himself and the value of art and creativity along the way.

And what about the rest of us? Our stories are just as compelling. We live one story, or chapter, and then another and another. We are wildly successful at one moment and frustratingly stuck at another. We can be a tender-hearted teacher and a battle-hardened Army Ranger in the same lifetime. It’s all part of whatever happens between “once upon a time” and “the end”…sometimes we are the hero, and sometimes we are the villain. We can also forget that we might be walking in at the lowest point of some people’s stories, and then we carry our version of them forever, even if it is wildly unfair or just plain wrong.

Wherever you are in your story, consider the words of Brene Brown, who writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “who has earned the right to hear my story?”

Brown emphasizes the practice of story stewardship in her work, with stewardship defined as “honoring the sacred nature of story-the ones we share and the ones we hear-and knowing we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care.”

Do you know for certain who has earned the right to hear your story? I hope you have a trusted circle who see you as more than just one version of yourself and understand the value of the gift in what you choose to share. You will be Mr. Miller, the teacher, one day and Captain Miller, fighting for his life and the lives of his men on the beaches of Normandy the next.

And remember, even the beloved Jeff Daniels is the villain in at least one story. If you listen to episode three of his Alive and Well Enough podcast, there is an unknown pedestrian in Toronto who is still angry about a long-ago encounter with the actor. I encourage you to listen. Not just to the podcast, where you cannot help but laugh, or at least smile at the hands of an exceptionally talented storyteller, but to the stories around you that you may have missed. There’s a lot going on between the lines.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at