Commentary: Everyone Has a Story (If We Only Ask)

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I was at a gathering where a man came up to me, courteously said hello and then added, “So, what’s your story?”

My (unvoiced) response was, “Excuse me!” I knew I had met him a couple of years before but his introductory question really threw me.

Then he surprised me when he continued, “When I first met you, you asked me, ‘So what’s your story?’ ”

He added, “No one had ever asked me that before and I was intrigued that you even asked. I have never forgotten that moment.”

At that point, I was really stumped. I did remember meeting him and talking with him. But I didn’t remember that haunting question.

When I was a seminarian in Cincinnati, we were blessed with some phenomenal English professors. They had a knack not only for helping us open some treasures of literature but to delve between the lines, if you will, to help us understand some of the lives and challenges of the people who wrote the volumes.

At the time, I had a sense of learning so that you could pass a test sometime down the road. However, our professors drew us deeper into what we read and the authors.

I was always intrigued by Henry David Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond. There are several theories as to why he spent two years, two months and two days in a cabin on property owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. An experiment? A retreat? Something else?        

A while back, a good friend introduced me to another chapter of Walden Pond history.

In 1990, the Walden Pond Project was established by Don Henley (from the band The Eagles), who began a nonprofit to protect the area around the pond from development.

Now there’s a story!

Our seminary mentors also introduced us to Emily Dickinson, who spent nearly her entire life in Amherst, Mass. Supposedly, she viewed her home as a microcosm of the world.

So back to my conversation with the fellow I saw recently and whose question began this column.

His opening question that day (and my opening question when I first met him) sparked an impromptu update as to what was going on in his life, including the arrival of his first grandchild. The chapters of life do unfold.

Think about it. We so often go to the movies or watch a TV show that begins with a statement in the middle of the screen: “Based on a true story.”

Or we attend a lecturer who comes to town who has been in the headlines. For instance, Olympian Allyson Felix will be at Stambaugh Auditorium Sept. 14 to share her stories and her advocacy work.

How about the books we read? So many books on the shelves tell marvelous and singular stories of people like you and me.

How about the stories of faith that inspire us and challenge us and reach way back into history?

At this point, I need to say that many – maybe most – of the powerful stories we hear are not on the big screen or in a lecture hall.

Many of them take place on our streets or in our apartment buildings. They are in the fitness centers we visit regularly or at the registers where we shop.

I am firmly convinced that we could spend our entire lives just listening to the stories of humanity, powerful stories from human beings like you and me.

So, let’s again get back to my friend. It’s interesting that he commented that no one had ever asked him his story. We can probably all say that to a greater or lesser degree.

What I learned is that whole new worlds await us if someone asks us or we ask someone, What’s your story?