I do a bunch of committee work at my church. I work with a core group of women who are primarily in our 30’s and 40’s. Between us, the 6 of us have 15 children ranging in age from 3 to 14. We all have what I used to think were extraordinary family situations. One of us is caring for a mother with cancer, one has a 3-year old who needs part of her colon removed, one has a daughter with severe and persistent emotional and mental health concerns, one’s husband was recently hospitalized with cat scratch fever, and my father is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. We all work, some of us at more than one job. And yet we all donate a significant amount of time to not only our church but also to various other organizations we are each involved with. I used to believe I was blessed just to be involved with such an extraordinary group of women. And I am. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that our family situations were only unusual for us. Our situations are extraordinary only to us and only because they are outside our typical definitions of normal family life.
I have come to believe that everyone has a story. I first started realizing this some years ago after a miscarriage. The more I talked about it, the more other women responded with something along the lines of, “oh that’s too bad, that happened to me once.” It turned out that even my own grandmother had a miscarriage that I never knew about. When my husband talks about his father who lived in a vegetative state for almost a decade, someone invariably replies with an equally horrifying story about their own parent/uncle/loved one.
When I was pregnant for the first time it felt like no one in the world had ever been pregnant before and that I was experiencing all these things for the first time in the history of humanity. Obviously countless women have experienced that joy. Just as our joys are not unique, neither is our suffering.
I believe everyone has a story. The challenge is in taking the time to learn that story and understand how the story affects that person and your interaction with them. The even greater challenge is accepting that we cannot know everyone’s story and we have to give people the benefit of the doubt. Just accepting that everyone has a story forces us to recognize the humanity in others.
My church home is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. As UU’s we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I believe in that principle even when I don’t want to. When I get aggravated at a stranger in front of me on line who is simply not being respectful of my time because really, who’s busier than me, I try and remember to step back. This other person surely has a story.