Every Story Matters

(I once wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in South Texas, collected in the book 52: Weekly Readings for Your Journey. My outlook and writing have changed a lot since those days, but I often recall this installment published on Veteran’s Day. It reminds us that every person has a story, and that some of these stories are from veterans who were caught in the tragic crossfires of history.)

For years, CBS ran a program called Everybody Has a Story. Host Steve Hartman threw a dart at a U.S. map, flew to that city, flipped open a phone book, put his finger down and called that household. If the individuals were willing, he highlighted their life stories which were often poignant. Then, before leaving, he asked the participant to throw a dart at the map to pinpoint his next destination.

There was a marvelous truth in this seeming randomness! It showed two things. First, the struggles and victories of being human are something we all share, no matter our age, race, or background. Second, our stories matter, especially when someone truly listens.

However, listening is a dying art. We fixate on TVs, computers, smart phones. Wired with sound bite mentalities, we wish people would just get to the point. We formulate responses before others finish speaking, cutting our attentiveness to zero.

Paul Tillich famously said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” In our raucous world, people long for someone to hear them. Our open ears and hearts provide an oasis of acceptance, and as we practice this art, we find that the benefits are reciprocal. Our worlds expand in astonishing ways. Here’s an example from my own life.

One day a short man with a warm, tooth-missing smile came to the front office of the church and asked to speak to the pastor (me). His dark skin was deeply weathered by the elements. He let me know that he was homeless, sleeping in his car, and he wondered if I could help him with lodging and food. When I agreed, he said, “Thank you, sir!”

That’s when I saw the military bearing in his shoulders and heard the respect in his voice.

“Are you a veteran?”

“Yes, sir. I served in Desert Storm with the First Mechanized Infantry.”

What followed was a gripping story, a painful page of American history, and it was my privilege to hear every word.

Raised in New Jersey, William Milburn inherited his family’s long tradition of joining the United States Army. He enlisted in the National Guard after high school, and when he got laid off from a factory job, he chose to go active duty. Eventually he was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, assigned to the First Armored Division.

In August of 1990, William was a frontline tank gunner when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As he recalled those awful hours, I could hear the roaring jets and the deep booms as William locked on to distant Iraqi targets and destroyed them. His traumatic memories still open fresh wounds.

“We saw trucks, jeeps and tanks with mangled, blackened bodies. The smell of death is horrible, pastor. I was a soldier, but as a Christian, any loss of life is terrible. I remember looking at one body draped from a jeep and thinking ‘man, that guy had a family.’ What was his story? It was war. I did my duty. But it was still so sad, and those images still haunt me.”

William received bronze stars for his valor. I thanked him for his service, then helped him find the lodging and food he needed for that night. I also invited him to contact me anytime, day or night, if he needed a listening ear. If found out later that William had gotten back on his fee, working hard as a certified nursing assistant, enjoying life with a new girlfriend.

Today, think of this as you shop, work, or travel. Every person you see has a story, and often the people we pass over the quickest have the most mind-blowing tales of all. A homeless veteran taught me this lesson.

All I had to do was listen.

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