The Rest of the Story

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You may remember the radio show many years ago by Paul Harvey. In his unmistakable voice, Harvey always started out his program with the end of a story — something most of us didn’t know — and then the show climaxed when he revealed who or what he was telling us about — something almost everyone knew. His closing line was, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

I loved that show because it was fun trying to see if I could figure out who he was talking about before he disclosed a name at the end. After over 35 years of life as a counselor, I have heard many back-stories.

I have listened to people in prison who grieve the fact that people will only think of them as criminals, never bothering to hear more of their story. I’ve sat across from children who have behaved poorly for weeks or months in school, frustrating their teachers to the point of wishing for the end of the year so those children would move on to another grade and be someone else’s problem. If only they knew the rest of the story, they would have been more patient.

I’ve sat with weeping men and women, grieving the loss of their marriages as they work hard to imagine a time in the future when their lives might have joy again. They imagine — and often they’re right — that their ex-spouses are voicing only the worst of the marriage to others, telling only part of the story, leaving their former partners with shattered lives, shattered dreams, and shattered reputations. The rest of the story will sometimes never be told to anyone but me.

I’ve worked with homeless men, women, and children. Every single one of them has had a story, and nearly all of them have started out with me by saying, “This is complicated.” It is always complicated, and I can see in their faces that they hope I will last through the story, that I will believe them, and that I will believe they are more than the single story that otherwise seems so clear.

Because of these many stories, I am always cautious when someone — usually a gossip — starts a conversation with “Did you hear about …?” I suspect that often it is more satisfying to tell the single story. It makes it easier to put people into boxes that we can categorize. But I won’t do that. I assume there is more to the story, especially when behaviors seem inexplicable. That is when the rest of the story is most important.

I don’t excuse poor behavior and poor choices, but I do know that when we look at the whole picture, it is sometimes understandable how people have gotten themselves into messes. With my clinicians in training, I repeatedly use the phrase, “People are doing the best they can with the tools they have available, and they do what they think works.” Nearly all behaviors, short of physiological problems, can be explained this way. As a counselor, I try to help people develop more effective tools and write a new, more functional story.

I’ve made friends along the way with people in prison. I’ve helped people move beyond the devastation of their past choices, and I’ve seen children succeed in life, despite the fact that many adults in their lives had written them off. And you don’t have to be a counselor to do that. You only have to be willing to hear the rest of the story.

One child, a 10-year-old boy just on the cusp of puberty, had come to my practice because he was failing in school. His mother feared he would have to repeat a grade. He was sent to the detention room nearly every day, and when I went to see him at the school, I finally started just going directly to the time-out room rather than his classroom. He was always there.

It was obvious by the way his teacher talked to him that she did not like him. I suspect the rest of the school generally felt the same. One day as I was about to leave our session, he looked at me with the most grateful eyes and said, “You are the only one who ever really listens to me.”

Someone once said that “enemies are people whose story you haven’t heard.” Most of the time, by far, those “enemies” are only our foes when we refuse to entertain the thought that there might be more to their lives than the truncated stories we’ve heard.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]