One of the reasons I love to read novels is the fact that they remind me that everyone has a story. As soon as I start a new book, I begin to learn about the events, relationships, and natural tendencies that make up that person’s life story. I remember hearing recently that young people today read for pleasure far less than ever before, most likely due to the ever-increasing pull of technology. Some mental health professionals speculate that this lack of reading leads to decreased empathy among the younger generation: because they do not spend as much time immersing themselves in other peoples’ stories, they get less practice seeing things from other peoples’ points of view. At any rate, one of the most essential realizations in life is that everyone has a story, and taking the time to remember this leads to a lot less judgment and a lot more compassion.
When we are struggling with issues, the temptation is strong to spend every ounce of energy we have trying to figure out solutions. It does not help matters much that when we lose our job, it seems as though everyone around us is not only gainfully employed, they also have the lowest stress and highest paying job imaginable. When we face health concerns, it seems as though everyone around us is not only in amazing shape, they are training to run a marathon. When our relationship is ending, we hop on social media and notice someone else recently renewing their vows. The reality remains that other people may not be facing the same difficulties we are, but they certainly have their own obstacles to overcome. The ability to recognize this can allow us to take a break from our own issues, give us better perspective, and allow us to regain the energy we need to appreciate the positives in our lives and even make a situation better for ourselves.
I have a friend who decided to learn more about another person’s story by becoming a mentor for a young man who faced many early disadvantages in life. These early challenges made it very difficult for him to locate and follow a good path toward a stable job. My friend described their first meeting, detailing his frustration at waiting an extra thirty minutes because this young man was running late, and his irritation that meetings would be cancelled with no advance notice. My friend, a middle-aged man dressed in conservative clothing with closely cropped hair, shared little outward similarities to the man he was helping. Yet as soon as he started listening to his story, a fuller picture began to emerge. This young man needed help after facing a childhood in the foster care system. No one had worked with him on organization, communication, and commitment with others. No one had made it a priority to nurture him and help give him a better start in life. If my friend had passed this young man on the street without a second glance or a word exchanged, he would have formed a completely different impression of him than the one he eventually developed: that of a young man with an extremely disadvantaged and challenging past, eager to learn and needing a second chance from someone who cared enough to invest time in him. My friend not only impacted someone else positively, but also incorporated a new gratitude for the opportunities he has been given in his own life.
Keeping in mind the stories we all carry around with us can remind us to avoid forming opinions of others too quickly. I remember twenty years ago when I unexpectedly lost my mom to a short battle with cancer. I was parenting two young children and every ounce of coping energy I possessed was directed toward creating good experiences for them. I know there were several instances when I encountered other young moms with their children out shopping, at restaurants, etc., and if they were accompanied by their own moms, I felt an instant and deep sadness. I also know this sadness made me less likely to smile or return a pleasant greeting to them. At a surface level, no one would have known why I was acting this way, and they may have assumed I just did not want to engage with them. Part of my story was the loss of my own mom when I was just starting out as a parent myself: it took me considerable time, emotional processing, and social support to be happy for those fortunate enough to be able to include grandma along with their own little ones. My ability to do this happened much more readily when I got to trade stories with other people, and they got to know me way beyond the surface level.
Learning about others’ stories can happen in some of the most ordinary moments of our lives. I recall hearing about an online customer service representative who spoke with an elderly woman needing to return a pair of shoes she purchased for her husband. Perhaps there was a catch in her voice, but for whatever reason the representative took the time to ask about her day, and learned that her husband had passed away: thus the reason for returning the unworn shoes. He not only took the time to listen to a bit of her story, but he also sent her flowers on behalf of the company. We are so much more than what we express on the surface level, and genuine connections are possible even in the smaller details of life.
Everyone we encounter has a story. They may be driving too closely behind us because the hospital called and time is running short for their loved one. They may be brushing past us in the store without saying “excuse me” because their credit card just came back declined. They may be abrupt on the phone because they were just served with divorce papers. Peoples’ lives are made up of stories and new chapters are added every day. We will not always agree with or have easily recognizable things in common with the people we encounter in our daily lives. Taking a few minutes to listen to and think about their stories can help us bridge gaps between us that sometimes threaten to widen instead of narrow. If we are open to it, we have daily opportunities to go beyond our own lives and learn from the wisdom, experiences and perspectives that come to us through other peoples’ life stories.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.