Living Human Documents

Some years ago I came across a book entitled, Everyone’s Life is Worth a Novel.  Knowing very little about the book and absolutely nothing about the author, I took a chance on it based solely on its intriguing title—one that resonated with a deep belief in me that all people are fascinating and interesting, if you dig deeply enough!

One of the pioneers of mental health chaplaincy, Anton Boisen, observed those under his care as “living, human documents.”  It is a metaphor that can be expanded in a hundred different ways, all pointing to the central truth that content cannot be measured by the cover, the thickness, or the cosmetics of a book, but only by the connection the story evokes in the reader.  When one adopts a posture that sees others as documents to be read before they are superficially interpreted, the chance for meaningful encounter increases proportionately.

 It is also a worthwhile image for self-reflection.  Observing the narratives of our lives rather than judging, resenting, or ignoring them is more likely to provide a meaningful context than just sitting in the drama.

 One of the central causes of conflict is the impatience that often prevents us from
investing due diligence in our relationships. In the interests of economy, the tendency is to project outwards from some place of comfort within ourselves and to include or exclude others based on a standard that exists within us–“do they think like me, look like me, share my interests or background?  Do they represent something familiar and comfortable, evoking the aromas of home and hearth, or do they stretch me beyond my preferred boundaries?”

 It was an illuminating moment when I realized how often my comfort zone has shifted.  Some of my early beliefs and the pursuits I followed seem ridiculous to me in the increased light of experience.  Just the same, they were beliefs and pursuits that seemed necessary at the time.  At one point I simply had to accept that I was where I was when I was there, because I could not authentically be anywhere else.  That understanding led to an awareness that if I needed to be where I was when I was there, then others need to be where they are when they are there as well, and the best one can do while “homesteading” in a place or perspective is honor the space for what it is.

A lot of petty conflict goes away when we realize that, for better or worse, people
need to be where they are when they are there.  It may not be where they will ultimately end up, or a healthy place in our view, but it is where they are; and whatever place that is, it is necessary.  In addition, some strong therapeutic ground can be gained by simply attending to the story in others’ lives and allowing the “living human documents” we care for to share their journeys, without needing to rush to judgment on the meaning of these living texts.  

Barack Obama described this suspension of judgment at a World Day of Prayer event as civility.[1]  We may not always agree, but we can be civil.  And giving people the space to be where they are in their own processes is a step toward civility, which is a
necessary step toward respect. 
Ultimately, a whole lot more can be gained by becoming curious rather than defensive.  Some of the greatest beauty in the world remains hidden from view until we consciously choose to risk our comfort and seek it out.  Unfamiliar beauty may not even appear beautiful until it has time to settle in, or be experienced over time—what we sometimes refer to as an acquired taste. 

Every life is worth a novel, and novels exist to attract readers.  Some of these novels grab us immediately, and others need to be nurtured along a little.  Others will clearly never be our taste.  Either way, the full story is not apparent unless you read to the end.

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