From the time we are little, we learn about ourselves and the world around us through stories. Stories help us build empathy, understanding, and compassion for other people. Stories help us navigate the nuances of our own identities. Stories bring comfort and unite us. They’re healing and transformative.
People will often say that underneath it all, we’re all the same, and while that may be true in a very broad sense, it fails us in our quest to know and love others. We all have unique identities and stories, and if we overlook this simple truth, we invalidate a person’s experience and who they are as an individual.
So, while we all want to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who we are, what makes us who we are is beautifully unique. Appreciating this diversity is only one step in bearing witness to another person.
When I was executive director of Summerbridge Pittsburgh (now Breakthrough Pittsburgh), it was my job to listen to stories. I had student applicants tell me their story. I had families tell me theirs. I interviewed aspiring teachers and asked them to tell me their story. I listened to their stories and helped them write a part of their next chapter.
While I loved my work with Summerbridge Pittsburgh, I sometimes disliked who I was when I was an administrator and boss. I got so caught up in the strategic planning and fundraising elements of my work, and those took me away from what I was truly passionate about: people. I had amazing mentors along the way that helped me eventually realize a different path for me. That’s when I left my job as an administrator and went back to school so that I could become a therapist. I can genuinely say that I don’t regret that decision for one second. It wasn’t easy, and it required some sacrifice on behalf of my awesome family, but it brought me back to doing the work that energizes me and allows me to help others.
One of the most powerful and beautiful experiences I’ve had in life is sitting with someone in their pain. Without judging them. Without fixing it. But, just sitting there and listening to their story. Being able to tell our stories, without fear of comparison, judgement, or even sometimes solution, is such an empowering and healing experience.
I’ve worked with sex offenders, individuals who are reentering life after time in jail, individuals struggling with addiction and severe mental health issues. A few months into my work at my clinical field site, I found a quote from Mr. Rogers that had serendipitously summed up my experience perfectly. Mr. Rogers said that “frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” I couldn’t find this statement to be more true. I’ve always felt so grateful and honored to listen to people’s stories, because it takes great trust, courage, and vulnerability sometimes for people to share that piece of themselves.
I am a changed person for the work I’ve done. I am a better educator and counselor because of the people whose stories I’ve heard. It’s been my life’s work to help others along their journey, but I gravely underestimated how much they would help me. My wish for all this holiday season is to find time to compassionately listen to someone’s story. It might just be the most unexpected joyful gift you weren’t anticipating!