Everyone has a story. Everyone. You do, I do, the cranky checker at the supermarket does. The profanity-prone cab driver, the arrogant teacher, the shy first-year college student, the exhausted gray-haired panhandler on the corner—everyone has seen more, done more, experienced more than we can imagine. We haven’t a clue what another person has had to deal with in their lives, or even in the last ten minutes!

And yet, we so often act as if we’ve got it all figured out, that life is simple rather than complicated, that easy answers are readily available for any and all situations. We wonder, silently or aloud, why the one moving slowly can’t pick it up a little bit, why the one who is angry can’t put a cork in it, why the one in tears doesn’t pull him- or herself together, why the one we can’t agree with is so dense and uninformed. We’re embarrassed or we’re frustrated; we’re anxious or we’re judgmental. Too often, we default to defensiveness and reactivity rather than breathing in for a few seconds and remembering to ask this all-important question, a question I heard articulated perfectly by one of my pastors in a recent sermon. He gives his wife credit for this one, and I am grateful to both of them for it: What don’t I know?

What don’t I know? Truth be told, we don’t know much, do we? Some days, it feels like we know less and less about who and how people truly are. The pace of life doesn’t leave much space for easy conversation during the course of our days. We have to move on to the next appointment, tick off the next errand, tackle the task that nags at us from the back of our minds. We have no time for stories, no interest in distraction—unless, of course, the Internet calls our name.

We have no time for stories, no interest in distraction—unless the Internet calls our name.

Even with the somewhat slower pace of retirement, I am too often guilty of this very thing. It is a lesson I am slow to learn, but little by little I am learning: if I slow the toe-tapping impatience that too often oozes out of my pores, I may learn something valuable and important from the other person. Shrugging off the garb of Having All the Answers might allow me enough space to ask a few gentle questions, with no pre-ordained answers in sight.

Questions are better than answers in almost any potentially troublesome situation I can think of. Questions open doors. They make space, allow room. And the more often I practice my question-asking out loud with the people I meet throughout the day, the more natural it becomes to ask those questions inwardly when I’m startled by someone’s appearance, language, opinion, or behavior. If I can go to the questions first, before the assumptions, before the judgment, I discover that my own heart softens, my anxiety level lowers, my ability to empathize deepens.

Remembering to ask changes me. And if I am changed, then the potentially hostile or difficult situation begins to change too. Asking quietly, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or, “Can you tell me why you’re so upset?” or, “Can you help me understand why you believe that?” or even a simple, “Is everything okay?” might make a friend out of a stranger. At the very least, slowing enough to ask a thoughtful question allows grace to enter the scene and begins to shed a little light in a formerly dark corner. What better way for Jesus-followers to be who we are! “You are the light of the world,” he told us. You.

I guess that means me. And it means you too.

So the next time we meet, perhaps we’ll discover that we don’t agree on something, maybe even something we both consider to be deeply important. Do you think we can slow down enough to remember? To remember that we do not know one another’s whole story, in all its wonder and complexity, and remember to ask questions rather than rush to judgment. I hope so! Do you? 

Picture of Elsa Johnson

Elsa Johnson

Elsa Johnson is a member of Winnetka Covenant Church in Wilmette, Illinois, but moved to Portland, Oregon, a year ago. She is a stay-at-home mother.

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