Stories That Bind Us

Yale University

William Faulkner once wrote,“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For some of us, that’s good news. Because if our past is still alive, we can change it.

We can’t alter the facts about our lives. We can reshape our stories about our past and experiences—like those hard times in our lives when we were younger (and not so wise!), periods we’d rather forget.

For me, it was my two years in business school nearly 40 years ago, memories of which I’d mostly ignored. Attending the Yale School of Management had been an incredible opportunity, an intellectual stretch, and a preparation I thought I needed for the next stage of my career. I entered as an ambitious, take-on-the-world 28-year-old. Then, I hit a wall of loneliness that led me to believe I was a misfit.

My classmates had extraordinary talents, fascinating backgrounds, and ambitions. I struggled not to compare myself to others who had worked at the White House, managed companies, or directed theatre companies. Most classmates seemed to be aiming at corporate careers, and I knew that wasn’t my calling. I felt isolated and out of place.

When graduation came, I packed my goods, memories, and shards of self-esteem and moved west. Arriving during a Seattle-area recession, I struggled to find work, trying hard not to think about my classmates and their six-figure jobs. I reminded myself that I wanted a different life.

As the years passed, I rarely thought about the time at Yale and kept my story about it locked away. Yet memories of that time still haunted when they surfaced. Thus, it surprised me when, nearly 40years later, I decided to join a group of classmates who had begun meeting on Zoom during the pandemic. My interest, I rationalized, was academic—a chance to learn about life transitions, part of my field.

The group, which began with 10 members, soon blossomed into a group of 60, and meetings averaging 25 participants. Because of the group’s size, new members joining for the first time had just three minutes to update the group about their lives. I wanted to know more.

Several of us sought a way to hear each other’s stories in more depth, so we created an eight-person subgroup we called the “Story Group.” Every month, we shared our individual stories in response to a common prompt. We talked about our family backgrounds,the challenges we’d faced, and what had brought us to Yale. We talked about the past and future. As we shared candidly and vulnerably, we quickly went beyond reporting our “good news” to speaking from our hearts.

After each member shared a story, others offered a few appreciative comments. “I never knew this about you.” “OMG, you’ve been through so much.” “My grandparents were also immigrants.” Or, “Your situation with your child sounds so challenging.” For some, time at Yale had been “Some of my best years,” and “The turning point in my life.” For others, it was “A time I would rather forget”and“Really tough years.” We embraced our differences with non-judgmental acceptance.

Age was our friend. No longer did we have to plump our egos or prove our greatness. Status and salary no longer mattered; daring to follow our hearts did. We talked about grandchildren, creative projects, contributions, and choices. I no longer felt the need to compare myself to others. I had found the life I wanted.

As we continued to meet,the magic of storytelling bonded us. Hearts opened. A group of classmates who had barely known each other at Yale became real friends. No one missed our meetings. We often commented, “How is it that I never really knew you? You are incredible.” We regretted how, in the academic pressure-cookeratmosphere of Yale, we hadn’t taken time to know each other better. But now, we had more time and could enjoy our shared connections and the camaraderie of having experienced an important stage of our lives together.

My story about Yale shifted. I wasn’t the only one who had felt like a misfit, and the truth was I had always belonged. And now, all these years later, that Yale experience paved the way to new friendships.

Old stories can bind us to a past that feels dark and restricted. Yet stories can change and open doors to new possibilities. When we share our truths open-heartedly, our stories can help us heal the past.

Thankfully, the past is never past. It might even be the source of new friends.

Sally Fox is a coach, speaker, podcaster, and owner of Engaging Presence, a firm that helps individuals and organizations develop and share their best brand stories. She is currently working on a book about finding your creative work in thethird act of life. Find her blog at and listen to her podcasts at 3rd

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