People are fascinating to me, and I don’t just mean the rich, the famous or the accomplished. I am interested in the common everyday person like myself. I long to hear people’s stories. When I go to Walmart I’m not looking for crazies so that I might laugh. Instead I find myself wondering how each person got to this moment in time and what his/her past and future may be. I understand that some of the most compelling histories are found in the lives of the most ordinary people and that it is virtually impossible to judge a book by its cover.
I knew a woman who cleaned houses for a living. She rarely wore anything other than torn jeans and stained t-shirts. Her hair was long and stringy. She appeared to be little more than a good ole Pasadena gal, but upon further research I learned that she had an MBA from Harvard and a very successful business caring for homes in River Oaks.
I once had a student who appeared to be little more than an arrogant bad boy who drove his teachers to the brink of insanity. He befriended me and ultimately told me stories that made me cry when I was alone in my home. He had a single mom who struggled to keep the family from being homeless and wandering the streets. Life was as tough as it gets, and yet this young man found the time to attend church with a friend. The services provided him with solace in a world that was mostly cruel to him. He had been born again and wanted more than anything to be a good and Christlike person. He confessed to me about something that was bearing down on his conscience and desperately wanted to know what to do.
He and his mom and sister had been on the verge of being evicted. There was no food in the house. Things looked quite grim. They walked to a nearby Walmart to see what groceries they might afford with the few dollars that his mother had left. While they were perusing the aisles the boy’s mom noticed a cart with an expensive purse sitting in the child seat. The woman who owned the handbag was far away with her back turned as she searched for a particular product. Her bulging wallet was visible and just begging to be taken. My student’s parent grabbed the billfold and whispered for her children to follow her quickly away from the scene. When the coast was clear she opened the wallet to find over five hundred dollars inside. She immediately cried tears of joy and told her children that they would be able to keep their apartment and eat well on that day.
My student, her son, was conflicted. He knew his mother to be a good and honest woman but she was desperate. He also realized from his recent religious conversion that what his mom was doing was very wrong, and yet he remained guiltily silent. The theft bore down on his mind and he was not sure what he should do. His dilemma easily explained his surly behavior and the fact that he was unable to focus on his school work. It would have been easy to simply write him off, but in hearing his story I understood the depth of his morality and the pain that worrying about his mom had wrought.
People are always so much more than they seem, but we don’t often hear their entire stories. That is where my most passionate interest lies. I truly enjoy discovering the essence of the people that I meet and I suppose that I have always been that way. My mother used to chide me for staring at strangers. I certainly meant nothing by doing that. I simply wanted to know them better. I liked to read faces and body language. I desired to know why someone was angry for no apparent reason. I realized that we are who we are because of a totality of experiences.
I think that it would be quite wonderful just to sit across from someone and say, “Tell me all about your life. I want to know what it has been like for you.” I suspect that if I were to do so I would find out that almost everyone begins with similar hopes and dreams, but the serpentine nature of reality often sends him/her along routes that challenge and sometimes even defeat. Those people who seem ridiculously strange are more often than not just victims of situations over which they have lost control.
Fighting one’s way out of poverty or abusive situations is much more difficult than it may appear. The sad truth is that we are not all equal in terms of intelligence. I have encountered so many individuals with major learning disabilities who struggle mightily to learn. Others are afflicted with mental illnesses that stalk them so often that they are unable to create routines for working and achieving success. Then there are those with major health problems. The list of reasons why some people remain in a state of economic or psychological distress are quite real and often not of the individual’s making. As a society it is up to those of us fortunate enough to lead relatively stable lives to help those who are less able but we don’t always do that. We instead look the other way or poke fun at those who are different.
I’ve also known people who are far more remarkable than they are willing to let on. They tend to be quite humble individuals who rarely toot their own horns. Sometimes it is only when they have died that we really begin to know them through the eyes of the people whose lives they impacted. As stories of their generosity, contributions and talents are shared we realize that a saint or a rock star was hiding in plain site, but we had no idea because they would never have sought recognition for their incredible deeds. My cousin who passed away just before Thanksgiving was one of those souls. All of us were stunned to hear of the innumerable kindnesses to one person after another that he displayed all very quietly. We knew he was a good man, but never quite realized the extent of his largess.
Most people have a hobby of some sort, but mine is learning about others. I would love nothing better than to make appointments everyday to just listen to the folks with whom I have been acquainted and those that I have yet to meet. I can only imagine how many wonderful things I would learn. This world really turns from day to day not so much from the movers and shakers but from the millions of nameless individuals who rise with the sun and do their best to make the most of the cards that have been dealt them. It is in their stories that we find profound truth and maybe even inspiration. We need to hear from them because each person is a beautiful and unique gift to our world who deserves to be celebrated and understood.