Like People First

Like People First

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Like People First

The more we know the better we forgive. Whoever feels deeply, feels for all who live.

~Madame de Staël

Craig, a close friend of mine in graduate school, brought energy and life into any room he entered. He focused his entire attention on you while you were talking, and you felt incredibly important. People loved him.

One sunny autumn day, Craig and I were sitting in our usual study area. I was staring out the window when I noticed one of my professors crossing the parking lot.

“I don’t want to run into him,” I said.

“Why not?” Craig asked.

I explained that the previous spring semester, the professor and I had parted on bad terms. I had taken offense at some suggestion he had made and had, in turn, given offense in my answer. “Besides,” I added, “the guy just doesn’t like me.”

Craig looked down at the passing figure. “Maybe you’ve got it wrong,” he said. “Maybe you’re the one who’s turning away — and you’re just doing that because you’re afraid. He probably thinks you don’t like him, so he’s not friendly. People like people who like them. If you show an interest in him, he’ll be interested in you. Go talk to him.”

Craig’s words smarted. I walked tentatively down the stairs into the parking lot. I greeted my professor warmly and asked how his summer had been. He looked at me, genuinely surprised. We walked off together talking, and I could imagine Craig watching from the window, smiling broadly.

Craig had explained to me a simple concept, so simple I couldn’t believe I’d never known it. Like most young people, I felt unsure of myself and came to all my encounters fearing that others would judge me — when, in fact, they were worrying about how I would judge them. From that day on, instead of seeing judgment in the eyes of others, I recognized the need people have to make a connection and to share something about themselves. I discovered a world of people I never would have known otherwise.

Once, for example, on a train going across Canada, I began talking to a man everyone was avoiding because he was weaving and slurring his speech as if drunk. It turned out that he was recovering from a stroke. He had been an engineer on the same line we were riding, and long into the night he revealed to me the history beneath every mile of track: Pile O’Bones Creek, named for the thousands of buffalo skeletons left there by Indian hunters; the legend of Big Jack, a Swedish track-layer who could lift 500-pound steel rails; a conductor named McDonald who kept a rabbit as his traveling companion.

As the morning sun began to tint the horizon, he grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes. “Thanks for listening. Most people wouldn’t bother.” He didn’t have to thank me. The pleasure had been all mine.

On a noisy street corner in Oakland, California, a family who stopped me for directions turned out to be visiting from Australia’s isolated northwest coast. I asked them about their life back home. Soon, over coffee, they regaled me with stories of huge saltwater crocodiles “with backs as wide as car hoods.”

Each encounter became an adventure, each person a lesson in life. The wealthy, the poor, the powerful and the lonely; all were as full of dreams and doubts as I. And each had a unique story to tell, if only I were willing to hear.

An old, stubble-bearded hobo told me how he’d fed his family during the Depression by firing his shotgun into a pond and gathering up the stunned fish that floated to the surface. A traffic patrolman confided how he’d learned his hand gestures by watching bullfighters and symphony conductors. And a young beautician shared the joy of watching residents in a nursing home smile after receiving a new hairstyle.

How often we allow such opportunities to pass us by. The girl who everyone thinks is homely, the boy with the odd clothes — those people have stories to tell, as surely as you do. And like you, they dream that someone is willing to hear.

This is what Craig knew. Like people first, ask questions later. See if the light you shine on others isn’t reflected back on you a hundredfold.

~Kent Nerburn

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