It happens to the best of us. At some point in this crazy, hectic holiday season, we lose track of what matters most: people.
We get caught up in gifts and decorations and the sheer exhaustion of family and travel. So, how do we beat this?
It's a discipline, one that doesn't come naturally. But it's important to making the most of the holidays or any time of year. It's the secret to living a life that makes a difference.
Here's what you need to do: Listen to someone's story.
If you can, make it a perfect stranger, someone you have to go out of your way to talk to.
Here's my experience with that — someone I met a few Christmases ago:
An everyday hero
His name is George and words like “garsh” are part of his everyday vocabulary. Especially when he's thinking through an issue.
“Garsh, I dunno,” he replies to my question about his best childhood memory. “Maybe when I got my bike on Christmas.”
He was ten years old.
It’s a stroke of irony that he mentions Christmas while wearing a red-and-white Santa hat smudged with dirt. For a moment, I think he is Santa Claus, in disguise.
George's nails are stained black at the edges, and he smells strongly of cigarette smoke. His favorite part of the job is “getting these things here — these carts — in as fast as I possibly can.” That's where I met him: in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, as I was walking to my car.
Something told me to stop
I can't explain it. But I'm glad I did.
As we talk, George pushes the four-wheeled buggies into their place. A few stubborn ones put up a fight, but he is the ultimate victor. Amidst the noise of clanking metal, his answers are hard to hear. I take a step closer to him, reaching out with the digital audio recorder to hopefully capture his words.
When the last cart is put away, George stands and listens to the remainder of my questions.
What's something you've always wanted to do, but never had the time?
“Go to Hawaii,” he chuckles.
I ask why.
“Because I hear it’s a beautiful place. I guess I’d like to go see what it is.” His naivete is refreshing. As is his lack of shame in admitting when he doesn’t know something.
If you were going to write a book, what would it be called?
He thinks long and hard about this. A whole minute seems to go by before he responds. Finally, he shares, “What a Great Person Would Do.”
What makes you laugh?
He sighs and says resolutely, “People.” I can't help but smirk at this one. I nod in agreement. No further explanation needed.
I ask several more questions, and then, without prompting, George tells me his story.
Originally from Richmond, Virginia, George moved up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania when he was young.
Later, he moved to Nashville because of his ex-wife. I assume this happened before she was his “ex,” but who knows.
He rounds up the carts every night at the local Wal-Mart, here in Franklin, a small town outside of Nashville. This is his job, and he takes great pride in it.
A prayer walker
He is a “prayer walker,” which he explains to me in case I don't understand what he means. I do. He once walked twenty-one miles in sandals.
I ask George why he does this, why he walks for miles in flimsy sandals. He explains, “I figure if God can…” he pauses, maybe in analysis of his personal theology, and then continues, “If Jesus can walk in sandals, then so can I.”
The blisters and sores he had for weeks after the long walk served as a reminder, George tells. Whether they were a future deterrent or a badge of pride, I'm not sure. I expect the latter.
The first thing George will do when he goes home tonight is tell his wife he loves her. Then, he will go to sleep. And tomorrow, he will start all over again. I shake the man’s hand and thank him.
Lost in the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and discontented consumers, I almost missed George. If I hadn’t stopped — if I hadn’t asked some simple questions — then I’d have never had the chance to meet this man and hear his story.
I almost walked on
Without noticing. Without caring. It would've been far more comfortable than going up to a perfect stranger at work. I don't know what made me do it. Maybe curiosity. Maybe a random surge of courage.
The truth is most of us can relate to being too busy to make time for the left out and lonely. The sad part is when we do this, we not only miss out on people like George, but on the beauty of humanity itself.
When we are willing to do the hard work of relationship and connect with other people, we find we are more alike than different. And at a time of year when loneliness and depression abound, that's a powerful feeling. For all of us.
I recall George’s book title as I watch him walk away: What a Great Person Would Do, indeed.
The whole conversation is less than ten minutes.
But I won’t soon forget it. Tonight, I have learned something valuable and important: Everyone has a story. Don't they?
Challenge: Ask a stranger's story this holiday season. Write it down. Then share it.