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Learning Someone Else's Story


I don’t know why serendipity still surprises me, but it does. At the very moment I need to learn something or see something, it appears—not always in the exact form I imagine it, but often in a way that expands my thinking and my faith. Most recently, I’ve been feeling discouraged by the lack of connection I see in the world. I am perplexed by our unwillingness to move past our own fears and ignorance and take a big step into the unknown, or at least the less-well-known. In the midst of the pandemic and the stresses and anxieties that have come with it, it feels so hard to move outside our own spheres, much less find comfort there.

Getting to hear what it feels like to be someone else is a greater opportunity than practically any I can think of.

I was thinking about that this week, when I saw an article about a Danish program called The Human Library. It was started in Copenhagen in 2000 and forms of it now exist in more than 80 countries around the world. The concept is a simple one. Instead of borrowing a printed book about a new subject, you check out an actual person who tells you about their life for 20 minutes. These “human books” are volunteers, people who “defy stereotypes,” according to the article. After a little research, I discovered that UC Davis even has a Human Library, though the pandemic has prevented recent face-to-face contact. In the Copenhagen project, volunteer "human books" range from someone who has ADHD, to people who are soldiers, who are homeless, who are single mothers and fathers, who are bipolar, and who experience any number of other life conditions. The point is, of course, that when we meet a real person who sees the world from a different perspective than ours, many of our stereotypes and judgments dissolve.


I love it that this is designed to help us connect with other humans in a real way. Although most of us have neighbors, co-workers, and even friends who may encounter the world very differently than we do, we don’t always allow ourselves to sit down together and talk about what life feels like to each of us. Listening just to hear about another person's experience is so pure and without motive. When I talk to people in my real life, I often feel as if I need to say a certain thing or respond in a particular way. I sometimes feel like I need to help if a person is struggling, which demonstrates my form of judgment. “This person’s life is hard and I need to fix it.” Simply taking in another person's story is a gift; getting to hear what it feels like to be someone else is a greater opportunity than practically any I can think of.


Although I sometimes fancy myself to be a pretty good listener, I know I’m only mediocre at best. I am often thinking of my response when someone is talking to me, including how I’ve had a similar experience or how they could enhance theirs if they took my advice. I’m hardly ever just purely listening. Even in my closest relationships, I have to remind myself to not give unsolicited advice, or jump on some idea my friend has mentioned. Although I believe that Jodi and I communicate well, she often has to say, “Just listen. I don’t need advice,” before she starts telling me something. I’m practicing being better at listening by being as present as I can be in the conversation, not surreptitiously looking at my phone, or planning my response. Sometimes I succeed and other times my bad habits take over.


Still, this Human Library reminds me what a gift it is to be able to hear other people's stories. We get to learn from each other, and feel empathy, excitement and pride. There are few opportunities in our lives that are as enriching as just getting to honestly, intentionally engage and connect with another human. In my current state of feeling as if the time ahead of me is very short, authentic conversations are among the experiences I want more of. As privileged as I am in terms of time and resources, I don’t want to end up wishing I had learned more about how it feels for other people to live in this world we share. The opportunity is right in front of me every day, whether I sit down in an actual Human Library or not. The richness of experience that lies in each of us is greater than any binge-watching or Kindle-reading I can do. Mostly I want to remember this so I don’t let any of my chances to connect pass me by.