Everyone has a story. I believe life is better when we take the time to really learn each other’s stories. For all you know, that one neighbor you’ve never spoken to could be the world’s greatest living poet. Or even better, the worst living poet.
People can surprise you. That professional office worker you see on the train with his tie and briefcase, the one you write off as “boring,” may have actually lived a life full of adventure. And the professional adventurer you see on that same train, with all the mountain climbing gear and stuff? Actually a very boring guy. You just never really know someone’s story until you ask. Just the other day here in Los Angeles, I had an Uber driver who apparently used to work as an actor before his Uber career took off.
Consider the humble clerk at your local grocery store. Right now they may be bagging your groceries, but who could really guess how storied their past is? Maybe something funny happened at the store right before you got there, for example.
You should never dismiss anyone until you’ve heard their story. I used to think the guy who walks around my neighborhood dressed in rags muttering to himself was “crazy,” but then once I actually talked to him, I found out that the American government is controlling his thoughts and actions through a chip in his penis.
And for a long time, I thought the guy living above me who beats his children and wife was a complete loser. Only recently did I find out that he’s actually a very successful UFC fighter.
Even the common criminal, the one whose mugshot you saw on the evening news, may have a story that would make you sympathize. Perhaps the only reason they robbed that bank is because they needed the money for an important medical procedure, like a heart transplant, or penis-biggening surgery. Even the really bad guys — the bankers, the real estate tycoons, the politicians — might have a story that would explain their motivations. One that would soften you to them. Perhaps they simply desire to have a huge amount of money, for example.
That DMV employee who was rude to you? You might think they’re just miserable, but maybe if you asked them what’s really going on, they would be willing to explain, specifically, what it is that’s so irritating about you.
I bet even your own loved ones could surprise you with new stories. When was the last time you asked your grandfather about what it was like to fight in World War II? Or came up with the name of a fake war and asked him what it was like to fight in that war, just to see what would happen?
I like to think that I, myself, am full of surprises. I’m generally a pretty quiet, introverted person, but when you sit down and really talk to me, you find out that I’m also very uneducated.
We all need to learn to walk a mile in each other’s shoes before drawing conclusions. Let’s not, for example, judge the cops for their mistakes until we ourselves have put on a policeman costume, badge and gun and hit the streets for a day.
We have to learn each other’s stories in order to connect. It’s all about starting conversations, and that’s easier to do than you think. It’s as simple as looking a stranger in the eye and saying, “Explain yourself.” You can do this anywhere: in line at the café, in the middle of a film at the movie theater, in a public bathroom, etc. It’s more important now than ever.