Practices of Gratitude – What else might the story be?

A lady, wearing the kind of clothes you’d see primarily at a dance club, just walked by my house pushing a stroller with a young child in it. It’s almost 11pm. It’s the third time I’ve seen her do this in the past two weeks. The child seems happy. He is wide awake and looking curiously about. As I hear him chatter to her and call her “mom” I guess that he’s about 2 to 3 years of age. The stroller itself is not like most of the luxury yachts you see pushed around my neighbourhood. It’s bare bones. No toys or sippy cups or snacks, no big wheels or iPod holders for the jogging parent; it’s just meant for transportation. She pushes the stroller most of the time with one hand because in the other she has a cigarette. She’s walking – not like someone out for a late evening stroll (or like some of us have done to get a child to sleep). Her walk is with clear purposefulness and speed. She’s got somewhere to be, and it seems like the stroller ride is an inconvenience along the way.

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I wonder what their story is.

We never just really observe facts – there are always inferences and assumptions, theories and lots of fillings in the gaps. It certainly is unusual to see what I just saw. The combination of characters, the timing, the out of place quality of it all; it awakens my inner Alfred Hitchcock and soon nefarious plot lines are developing. Recognizing these suspicions are a product of my own mind, I still feel tempted to be a little judgemental about this parent based on my own expectations and values.

So here’s our next practice of gratitude. Ask yourself: “what else might the story be?”

We can all generate a story about what’s going on around us. We do it all the time without barely a conscious effort. But what if I, or if you, were to drop our assumptions or even question them and consider what other story might explain what we’ve just noticed?

Maybe you read my description of what just passed in front of my eyes 10 minutes ago and thought something a little like I did: who is this irresponsible mom that pushes her young child around late at night, dropping him off somewhere so she can go party?

But we really don’t know any of that for sure do we?

Compassion invites us to consider what other things might going on that our first version of the story missed. Maybe she’s headed to work at a bar – the best job she could get in a tough economy that pays enough for her to support herself and her child. Maybe she’s taking him to sleep at somebody else’s house while she works because she wants to be around when he’s awake during the day. Maybe she dresses that way because that’s what gets tips at the place she works, and that extra money will help pay for school so that she doesn’t have to be living like this for the next 10 years. Maybe she smokes because she hasn’t found a better way to deal with all the stress of trying to keep all these balls in the air at the same time. Maybe my assumptions about her irresponsibility or selfishness were premature?

As I reconsider some possible alternatives to my first story (packed with negative assumptions) I’m a little thankful that I get to sit on my porch at 11 pm and write while my children sleep peacefully at the end of a day I didn’t have to work (and instead I enjoyed playing with them).

I think compassion – asking what else might be true in someone’s story and caring for their struggles – might be an excellent way for us to cultivate gratitude for what exists in our own lives.  When we stand in judgement, it reinforces our sense of being entitled and deserving of what we have. It blurs our thinking, causing us forget that everything in life is a gift.

Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a leading gang intervention program says this:

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it”.

I talk a lot about wonder and awe in this blog, but I’m humbled by the idea of having a compassion that stands in awe of what other people have to deal with in their lives.

But it’s exactly that kind of awe for “the poor” of any shape or size or type that challenges our hold on what we have and invites us to recognize how gifted we are to have it. There are many kinds of poverty beyond the obvious material ones.  Compassion opens us to consider how our stories about the world may be overlooking the poverty of others and our own giftedness. In reconsidering those stories we might find an experience of thankfulness and awe.

It’s easy to judge a mom dressed a certain way, pushing a stroller late at night while smoking a cigarette. They may not be ideal conditions for the child, but that may not be her fault. Maybe she’s doing the best she can. Maybe she’s carrying enormous burdens in life that would astonish us if we actually knew her story.

It’s been a lot of years since I worried about how we were going to pay next month’s rent or mortgage payment. I worked hard to get to this point, but I’m also here because of a lot of acts of kindness, support, trust, sharing, opportunities, and generosity from other people. I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t have those kinds of problems because of my choices in life, but to do so overlooks all the gifts that made my hard work and achievement possible in the first place.

In the quiet stillness of this summer’s night, as I’m opening myself to the possibility of awe for someone who I actually know nothing about, I find myself invited to consider that at least in some aspects of my life I’ve been fortunate to have people help me carry the burdens and meet the challenges of my life. I know some amazing parents raising kids by themselves – but I’m thankful I’ve had someone to share that enormously difficult part of life with me.

I can only guess the story of this stranger who passes down my street with her child. But the question, “what else might her story be?” is more than just a writer’s musings. It invites us to consider her poverty and our own great giftedness. It brings us to the possibility of awe for what she might be carrying, and awe at what we’ve be given to help us in our own lives.


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