A few years ago, I had an ampersand tattooed on the top of my right foot. You know… one of these guys:
Aside from being my favorite typographical symbol (What? Doesn’t everyone have one of those?), it’s also a succinct way of describing my philosophy of humanity:
There’s always more to the story.
I’m obnoxiously empathic. Obnoxiously. As far as character flaws go, I’d argue that having too much empathy is better than having none at all, but, as people who are constantly exposed to my persistent, “Now wait a sec. Have you thought about it this way?” my family would disagree.
Case in point: When my girls complained about a bully in middle school, the first thing out of my mouth wasn’t, “Oh, honey. That sucks.” It was, “Oh wow. Do you think she has a tough home life, maybe?” Eventually, Emily began starting her stories with, “Okay, mom. I’m going to tell you about a mean kid, and I need you to take my side this time. Seriously. Please.”
Here’s another one: On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I was sitting on the living floor talking with my husband (of three months) about the terrorist pilots who destroyed buildings and lives and families and our country’s sense of safety and security. Before I could choke back the words, I heard myself say, “Those men are someone’s sons!” Jack’s mouth dropped open. “Are you seriously feeling sorry for the terrorists?!” (No, I wasn’t. Well, not exactly, anyway. I was feeling heartbroken for everyone.)
And another one: Jack and I were sitting at a little cafe in August of 2014, talking about the rioting, looting, protesting, fire-setting, tear-gassing, and general melee happening in Ferguson, Missouri. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it must’ve been a doozy, because Jack shook his head, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You’ve gone too far. You’re so open-minded that you’ve come all the way around to close-minded.”
I can’t help it, though; I’m naturally wired to see the other side—or sides—of a situation. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is just what I do. I guess I simply can’t stand to think that there are truly “bad” people in the world; I just know there’s a reason for their behavior, and I want to find it and understand it. Without exception, there is a why. There is always, always more to the story.
He’s a hateful and arrogant man and his father beat the hell out of him, his mom took his dad’s side, and he spent months on the streets before his aunt and uncle finally took him in.
She’s promiscuous and her mom was an alcoholic who had multiple boyfriends, one of whom repeatedly sexually abused her.
They stole cigarettes and they were trying to pay off the landlord so they wouldn’t be evicted.
She lost her job for no-call-no-shows and her husband was killed in an accident three months ago and she just can’t seem to get it together.
They drive a Benz to the food pantry every week and it was paid off when she lost her job, and they sleep in it sometimes when they can’t scrape together enough for a hotel.
And. And. And.
More than 20 years ago, I heard someone end a story about a new neighbor with, “I have no use for her.” Just typing that phrase makes me cringe. I don’t care if the neighbor’s a foul-mouthed, chain-smoker who keeps parking her car directly across from my driveway and lets her dog leave gifts on my front lawn. No human being should have a “use” to anyone. She’s not a commodity. She’s a human being. And there are likely darn good reasons—or at least a compelling explanation—for her decidedly non-neighbor-ish behavior.
I know there are dangers in thinking this way. Sometimes I’m just flat wrong. Sometimes, rather than just seeking out an explanation, I wind up making excuses. I get taken advantage of. I get hurt. I spend too much energy trying to fix what’s not mine to fix. And that sucks.
But so does missing the rest of a good story.