I’m both tolerant and judgmental. 

I love crossword puzzles, especially if the subject matter is something fun like movies from the heyday of Hollywood—think Hepburn, Tracy, Bogart, and the like. Sudoku appeals to me because mostly I hate numbers, but this game keeps me on friendly terms with at least one through nine of them. 

I enjoy figuring out how inanimate objects work—like puzzle clues, and how diverse people click together and somehow work. I make snap decisions assessing personalities with a LeRoy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS, folks—can Mark Harmon get any more handsome?) gut that is usually right. When I choose to ignore my instincts, too frequently giving the benefit of the doubt when I shouldn’t, trouble of some degree usually follows.

Understanding people and what motivates us to do what we do is ceaselessly fascinating. 

John Douglas’, The Anatomy of Motive is a captivating read as the original FBI behavioral analyst delves into the whys behind the criminals’ action. After reading it a dozen years ago, I started to examine the actions of the (thankfully) non-criminals dominating my life—including my own conduct.

What I kept realizing over and over in life was that if I didn’t stop to consider the backstory to what I was observing of a person’s undertakings, then the sole thing I was being, was judgmental of a solitary moment in their lives. I didn’t want to be that person, the one who makes a snap decision and reacts to that, perhaps causing misunderstanding or pain to someone else. I wanted to go deeper and confirm whether or not the Gibbs-gut was a true interpretation of the facts.

Instead of looking at the parents with the screaming kid sitting two tables away in the fancy, expensive restaurant I’d long wanted to dine in and thinking, “Get that kid out of here, you’re ruining everyone’s (that is, MY) meal!” I began looking at the parents’ faces. At other times when this has occurred, their expressions told a story of parents who didn’t seem to care what their kid was doing or who his behavior was impacting. You know the parents, the ones who think their child is the center of everyone’s universe and if he wants to have a fit right now, well you should indulge their desires.

But this particular evening, sheer exhaustion was evident on the features of this couple, allowing me to build a backstory for them. Maybe their child had a physical problem that caused him to act out. Maybe they were new in town and didn’t have any friends or relatives to give them support as parents of a troubled kid. Maybe I needed to smile at them instead of scowl and perhaps that would provide encouragement and they could find the strength to reach out and calm their child.

Those were possible narratives.

 

When we share our stories, our backgrounds, with each other, we have an opportunity to grow close as human beings. We gain understanding and empathy, lessening the distance between us and building common grounds.

In this time when social media leads us to believe people want to be polarized, to be opposite of one another, it takes effort for us to stop putting up walls and instead let us drop bridges over the moats that divide us.

HEADLINE: Black woman refuses to give up seat on bus to white man.

SURFACE STORY: This is pure obstinance in the face of the signs telling her what she has to do.

BACKSTORY: Forty-two year old Rosa Parks had worked her behind off during a long day in retail and had simply had enough of the inane prejudice of one skin color having more rights than another that day.

HEADLINE: Man has trailer stolen from hotel parking lot.

SURFACE STORY: So? It’s an easily replaced material item.

BACKSTORY: The Joe Stone Foundation camper trailer was heisted by some horrible people, stealing everything (including his catheters) this sky-diving paraplegic was using to make a documentary. 

Backstories bring us together, beyond the skimming of headlines, beyond our casual observations.

Who will you learn about today when you make the conscious decision to delve beneath the surface of what you see? 

My backstory:

When someone asks me if my folks are alive, I answer, “No, my parents recently passed away.” 

Typically the person will ask, “Oh, I’m sorry. When was that? 

“Mom in August of 2008 and Dad a mere eight months later…” If the person is lucky enough to still have both their parents, I usually get an incredulous look from them—that number of years and I’m still saying “recently?” Without the full story: “Mom died from lung cancer and Dad from ALS,” they could think I was simply being overly dramatic. But adding on the details of why they died changes my listener’s perspective. They have a chance to step into my shoes and think about the tragedy of losing two parents to horrid illnesses within such a short time period. Ah … the light may dawn for them, “That’s why she said recent.”

Think about the missed opportunity that you had to open up one step further to someone you recently met. How would it have altered the interaction? How would it have changed what you took away from meeting them? Do you think they would have opened up even a little more if you had taken that first step? What could you have learned that would define them better in your memory and perhaps make you want to see them again?

The backstory each of us carry is worth sharing if you want to be known and understood, if you want to connect with others beneath the surface of your lives, if you want people to share a part of their special biography with you.

Our world might get a little kinder, a little softer, a little less biased if we take the time to dig into each other’s backstories. What do you think?