Imagine, if you would the following story:
You are on a subway. Perhaps you’re rereading your favorite book, doing homework, or reading an important report for work—any of which requires concentration. Above the normal background noise, you hear young children shrieking with laughter, hooting at one another and causing a ruckus. You look up, a bit aggravated at this point, and see three children, four to seven years old at most, using other passengers as a jungle gym. Their hair and clothes are a mess. Their shirts boast what might be food stains, some of which, along with other debris, cover their mouths and cheeks.
Where are their parents? you might ask yourself. What kind of parents would let their kids act like this, especially around strangers? You see other passengers taking notice, and they exchange glances among themselves and roll their eyes at the children.
You spy a man, dark-haired and disheveled, who is in his late twenties to mid-thirties. He is wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and sweatpants, his hair sitting askew. He slumps as he watches them. His expression is slack; his eyes are glassy, and he is clearly somewhere else. He calls them by name despite their ignoring him.
Your aggravation melts into anger. How can he just sit there and not do anything while his kids are running around? Why won’t he control them? They could get hurt or someone could even kidnap them, taking them at the next stop, and he doesn’t even care. Is he high? Is he drunk? Is he too stoned or too intoxicated to take care of them? Why aren’t they in school anyway? What a terrible parent; he should have his children taken away. He clearly can’t or won’t take care of them.
You sniff in disdain and call out to him. “Hey mister,” you say, “do you mind getting your kids under control?” His eyes meet yours before quickly bouncing away. He calls to his children again in a near-whisper, but they do not answer. He looks at you, vaguely regretfully but doesn’t collect them.
How do you feel imagining this story? Merely annoyed? Aggravated? Angry?
What if, by some psychic insight, you learn the following:
Approximately twelve hours prior, in the middle of a pizza-and-pajama night with his children, the man received a call. He was informed that his unconscious wife had been rushed to the hospital. She had been brutally attacked, she had just been identified, and staff were taking her for tests. In the middle of the night and with no babysitter with such short notice, he had plucked their children from their sheet-fort and pillow-beds, pizza stains and all, and rushed to the hospital. They had slept while he waited hours to learn the extent of her damage. In a little curtained-off room in the emergency room, she died, never having regained consciousness. The mother of his children and love of his life had just died before his eyes.
The man and his children had just left the hospital. The children, fully rested and full of energy, had no idea their mother was dead. The father, fully drained and full of grief, had no idea how to tell them that their mother was dead.
How does the story of the man and his children change for you? Do you find yourself feeling a little more sympathetic toward the father? More patient toward the children? Do you find yourself wanting to help him, despite your book or homework or work report?
If so, you have just experienced a paradigm shift, A paradigm shift is that “aha moment,” when our basic framework for understanding something changes on a fundamental level.
This is my version of an exercise given by a co-worker during a customer service presentation many years ago, and, unfortunately, I do not know his original source.
What we see is rarely what is actually happening. We see events, facts, and immediately begin to weave those facts together to make a story. That’s what our brain does—it creates meaning from individual points of information. Because we usually do not know every point of information, our stories are incomplete and inaccurate.
It is the story behind the story that connects us to the man and his children. It’s why stories—individual, personal stories—are so important. They provide insight and allow us to understand and to empathize. It gives us the opportunity for connection.
In 2022, we are perhaps more divided than ever before, and yet technology gives us the tools to be more connected than ever before. My goal for this project is to collect stories of individuals, especially those of people who have little to no voice or platform, and amplify them.
Everyone has a story. What’s yours?