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More than you’ll ever know.

January 12, 2011

Trivia is intriguing.  Trivia couched in a story becomes less trivial and more about “fleshing out” a person or situation.  I knew Brian May played lead guitar for Queen.  I didn’t know he also held a PhD in astrophysics.  I discovered that piece of trivia listening to the story of how in 2007, a Dutch school teacher discovered “a great, green blob floating in space”.  She knew very little about astronomy but while looking on Brian May’s website, followed a link to Galaxy Zoo photos, where she made the discovery.

What interests me about this bit of trivia has nothing to do with astronomy and very little to do with Brian May.  It has to with drawing conclusions based on partial information, making assumptions.  The moment I learned that Brian May has a PhD in astrophysics I realized “again” how often I assume that all I know about a person is all there is to know.  I thought of how easy it is to forget that people have a history of experiences and stories that precedes my stepping into their lives, and how that view may limit my definition of who they are.

Marie Hughes was one of the sweetest people I have ever known.  She seemed almost too nice to be real.  I knew Marie had been married for a long time to Luther, a gentle, pleasant man in spite of having been a POW during the Vietnam war.  Over time I think I began to assume that only someone incredibly innocent could be that sweet, a 20th century Pollyanna.  If Marie had reached her senior years with innocence intact, then I had to conclude she hadn’t felt the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.  I think I began to see Marie as sweet, and diminished.

I was facilitating a women’s book discussion group which Marie attended regularly.  One night the discussion focused on how we live in spite of difficult life experiences and loss.  That night I learned how much I didn’t know about Marie Hughes as she told us about her first husband, a railroad worker who was killed on the job, leaving her a young, widowed bride.  She described her devastation and grief, how empty and lost she felt, how she didn’t think she could go on.  She told us how her father’s strength helped her and what a godsend it had been when she met Luther and they began to build a life together.  I was stunned. Marie was still one the sweetest people I had ever known, but she was no longer untested, and she would never be diminished to me again.

Tracy Kidder wrote about life in a nursing home in his novel, Old Friends.  It is a wonderful, insightful story of strangers becoming community, of people near the end of life whose history and stories seem present in fragments if at all.  Kidder borrows a line from a Frost poem as he wonders, “What to make of a diminished thing…”  After the revelation about Marie, I began to look at the people around me wondering how many of them I had diminished simply because I didn’t know more of their story. How many had I discounted without intending to, due to my tunnel vision about who they were, what they had accomplished, and what they had to contribute.  I became more aware of the risk of living out of my own perception without acknowledging the inherent limitations.

I could suggest that we focus on gathering every tidbit of information we can about those we encounter.  Although there are occasions when we should be open to a fuller life story, it isn’t practical to think we can literally know everything about someone before we assess who they will be to us or who will be to them.  What I am suggesting is that we work to be fully aware that there will always be more to the story than we will ever know. That our respective stories will be a part of our exchange even when we don’t know they’re there.  And knowing that, we will add an extra measure of grace to our giving and our taking.

I think Plato said it well…

“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. M. Bowen permalink
    October 10, 2011 1:39 pm

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