One of Mark Twain’s stories tells of an artist, George Sterling, who finds most of humanity—other than himself—rather uninteresting. Self-absorbed in his own career and interests, he takes little notice of the people around him.
But then George starts painting portraits of the very people he considers dull and commonplace. As his subjects gradually open up to him, he learns their stories, gets to know them from the inside, and comes to the realization that “a person’s experiences of life are a book. There was never yet an uninteresting life,” he concludes. “Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.”
Sometimes, as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A rough exterior might just be hiding a loyal, tender heart. A shy or reserved demeanor often belies profound feelings and insightful perspectives on life. Every life story has its chapters of heartache and difficulty, along with moments of sheer joy and good humor. And the best part is, a new chapter is being written every day.
But the only way to know that is to take the time and effort to truly get to know a person. That man you see walking down the street bravely served his country during a war; he has a family, and he’s looking for work—he has a story to tell. That woman waiting in line in front of you runs a small business, sings in a choir, and volunteers in her son’s elementary school—she has a story to tell. Old, young, and everyone in between has a story.
So listen, ask questions, be patient, and open your heart with genuine interest in another’s journey of life. As their stories unfold, not only will you find them to be more fascinating than you may have thought, but you may also find a new friend—and that will enrich your life story too.
“The Refuge of the Derelicts,” in The Devil’s Race-Trace: Mark Twain’s Great Dark Writings, ed. John S. Tuckey (1966), 317. Lloyd D. Newell, Music and the Spoken Word, March 15, 2015