Friday, January 24, 2014


In 1998, Steve Hartman, a young CBS reporter, undertook a fascinating experiment with his On The Road* series. He would go to a map of the United States, close his eyes and point blindly to a spot somewhere in the country. Then he’d go to that place, or, more precisely, to the nearest burg big enough to have a telephone directory.

Once he arrived in AnyTown, USA, he’d go to the first telephone booth he found, open up the White Pages to a random page, and once again covered his eyes and pointed. Whichever name his finger settled on would be the subject of his story. Then he went and interviewed that person.

Whether it was Bill, the ebullient banker from Boise, Patti, the paraplegic paramedic from Peoria or Ulysses, the unemployed utility worker from Utica, it turned out each person had a fascinating, compelling story to tell.

I don’t recall feeling that Hartman’s concept was anything much more than entertaining, but its return to mind many times since then suggests otherwise. It reminds me of something it turns out I’ve been learning on my own all along: that everyone—and everything—has a story. Every one of us has faced challenges, celebrated triumphs, loved and lost, created something unique and coped, in one way or another, with whatever life has thrown at us.

This is why those random, average-Jane-or-Joe interviews were so significant. Their lesson reminds me, every time a make a judgement about something solely in the context of my own experience and values, that I just might be missing something. Like when I lambasted the woman driver who cut me off this morning as I was trying to exit the crosstown.

          I realize now is that all that negativity 
          was based not on her story, but mine.

Believe me, I had no trouble characterizing that woman as aggressive, thoughtless, greedy and just about any other negative judgement you can think of. But what I realize now is that all that negativity was based not on her story, but mine.

I'd been running late myself. I imagined myself to be nicely in control of my life and, truth be told, was probably thinking of nothing more than the lovely, sweet, frothy cappuccino I was about to pick up at Espresso Royale. To me at that moment the woman had no story—other than that single-minded self-indulgence I’d so conveniently ghostwritten for her.

I don’t know what that woman’s story was. But I do know she had one. Maybe it was that she’d just found out her child was injured at daycare. Maybe she’d just lost her job and pondered a future with no income and no savings. Or maybe she was off soaring in the rarefied air of new love. Whatever.

Wouldn’t the world be a kinder, gentler place if we all understood that everything—every person, every creature, every growing thing, indeed every stream and grain of sand—has a story? Not just the story we may have written for it—one so often about what it can do for us—but its own story about how it got there, why it belongs there and, if not, where it needs to go.

     What happens to one organism or one thing 
     has an effect on…well, everything.

Each of these people, each of these things, is significant, not just to the other people and things closest to it, but to the universe. Okay, maybe that’s over-
reaching a bit…or is it? Indeed, there is a growing body of research, not to mention a groundswell of people around the world who know it but perhaps can’t prove it, suggesting that what happens to one organism or one thing has an effect on…
well, everything.

This so-called “butterfly effect”—the fact that a small change at one place in a system can result in immense differences in a different place or a subsequent state—can occur in many ways, perhaps most notably, ways we don't notice and can never fathom. That's why I so often say that wonder is at least partly an act
of faith.

Children and Nature author and visionary Richard Louv reminds us that people won’t love what they don’t know, and that in order for folks to care enough to protect and preserve our dwindling supply of Natural wonder we need to help kids learn about Nature and their place in it.

For by learning the stories of animals, plants, water and the land—and of the places each inhabits—they begin to write their own.

* Hartman did On the Road for seven years, until 2005, and then, in 2010, reprised the series on a global scale. 


Vishnu said...

What happens to one organism or one thing has an effect on…well, everything in that statement is the truth, Jeff. It's not overstating it by any means. We are one organism - we are one spirit and one earth. Our ego often reminds us that we are not but essentially we are. I try to remind myself of that daily and practicing the golden rule is a further reminder of that. If everyone did to others what they would want for themselves, then the world would be a more compassionate and peaceful place. We can't enforce others practice that philosophy but we each can practice it in our own lives.

Insightful and extraordinary post about the ordinariness of life, the commonality of our being and the power of each others stories!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for your kind and encouraging words, Vishnu. I'm hoping that, as with so much of the human experience, this sense of oneness, if believed and acted on by some people, will grow and eventually become the cultural norm. You, by the way, are a great help in fostering that reality! Thank you.

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