Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lessons from a Random Stranger

Sitting alone in a booth intended for four, I drizzled heavy white cream over my coffee. The spine of my new book creaked slightly as I opened its cover for the first time. I had one hour until I had to pick Reese up. One hour of total peace and quiet. One hour with the pastime I enjoy far too infrequently these days.

An old man shuffled past my table, leaning heavily on a wooden cane. A regular customer, I assumed from the waitress’ greeting. He settled into the corner booth and ordered a hamburger. I wondered how that would pan out since his tight sunken lips suggested the absence of even a single tooth.

I quickly returned my attention to my book. Old people make me uncomfortable.

Minutes later, I looked up just as the old man was lowering himself onto the padded seat across from me. My eyes searched the room, confused.

Is he lost? Does he think I’m someone else?

The uncomfortable-around-old-people part of my brain encouraged me to bolt. Quick! Excuse yourself and leave. Or at least tell him to leave. Or at the very least pretend you don’t see him.

He either failed to notice my discomfort or completely ignored it. After a long awkward silence he finally spoke, “My name is Bob Smith. Would it be alright if I joined you?”

I felt my face flush red. People at other tables were staring, expecting a scene. Suddenly the manager peeked around the corner, “Bob, are you bothering this lady?” Then, turning to me, “Everything alright, ma’am?”

Here’s your chance. No I’m not alright. Check, please!

The thoughts fizzled before reaching my lips. I could tell from the manager’s tone that this was a common routine, an unwelcomed addition to his job description – steering Bob away from annoyed customers. Customers like me who want to read their books and drink their coffee and not be bothered by lonely old men.

“We’re fine, thank you,” I surprised myself with my own response. The manager turned toward the kitchen with a shrug. Bob continued talking as if there had been no interruption. He said he was a hundred years old. His sunken cheeks and toothless grin gave me no reason to doubt it. He said he had been living alone for the past 15 years, walking here several times a week. I wondered how long it took him to shuffle himself over from his apartment. Even if it were next door, the trip would likely take most of his day. He had the slouched posture of a weary traveler. The heaviness in his eyes hinted at the depths of his loneliness.

Pretend you don’t see him. The guilt threatened to swallow me whole as I wondered how often he gets that reaction, how often people brush him off as if he has aged out of the rights to dignity and respect. What makes my agenda so important that I can’t take an hour to validate the existence of another human being?

Closing my book, I cradled my coffee mug with both hands and forced myself to make eye contact with the stranger at my table. Bob continued to talk. I started to listen - not the way I often “listen” when Reese shows me the same toy for the tenth time, or the way I “listen” when Matt interrupts a writing session to get my opinion on a landscaping idea – but really listen with the kind of intent that whispers its message through the silence, “your story matters.”

He talked about the many decades of changes to the local landscape and how “none of this was here 50 years ago.” He bragged about his swing dancing skills and offered to take me for a spin around the diner. I said I wasn’t sure I’d be a very good partner, standing to reveal my baby bump. We shared a laugh as he asked what my husband would think about his pregnant wife’s impromptu date with this strange old man. I promised to keep it between us. We laughed again.

Suddenly I realized I was no longer nervous; no longer annoyed; no longer counting down the minutes. Eventually, I did have to excuse myself. I told Bob it was nice talking to him, and I meant it.

Twenty minutes later, with Reese now buckled in behind me, I listened to her talk about everything she did at Nana’s house. My fascination was genuine, my responses were more enthusiastic. Your story matters.

At home, I greeted Matt. He immediately started telling me about his crazy afternoon with an out-of-control student. My interest was sincere, my reaction was more concerned. Your story matters.

The significance of my random encounter suddenly started to make more sense. I hadn’t simply done a favor for a stranger. We were two souls brought together in a perfectly orchestrated universe, each possessing exactly what the other needed for the moment. I had been searching for peace and quiet with a closed mind and an open book. Instead, I found it through a closed mouth and opened ears. For one hour, my thoughts were quiet, my soul was at peace, and I remembered what it’s like to truly listen and let people know that their stories matter.

Thanks, Bob, for letting me listen.

This is a Bigger Picture moment. 

Join us today at Alita's place.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I will remember it... Intentional listening = your story matters. Bob was brought to you so you could bring him to us!

  2. 100? That's amazing. But how good can it be if he is so very lonely. I pray that Bob meets many more people like you who will take the time to listen.

  3. Oh I adored every single word of this story. Your story does matter, and so do this one. And so does Bob's and so does Tanya down the street. We should all close our mouths and open our ears. I'm going to close my mouth and open my ears today. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing this.


  4. This is so sweet! I just love this story. Thank you for sharing it here, for a beautiful reminder for all of us :)

  5. Too often this world forgets how much each story really does matter. I love your closing...thank you, Bob, for letting me listen.

  6. I heart this post big times. Thank you for sharing your story, and thank Bob, too, for sharing his. I hope Bob finds other people in his remaining days who are willing to listen.

  7. Oh, this post -- this story is so cool. Why do we forget how important other peoples' stories are? They're fine and even desirable if they fall in the pages of a book we've been dying to read, but plunk us down next to the real-life version, and we stutter. Or, I do anyway. I'm so glad you paid attention. I know he helped open your eyes (mine too!), but you must have been a wonderful blessing to him that day; someone to listen.

    It's redundant to say so, but -- this story is so cool!

  8. Ok, I'm crying. Because I love how God orchestrated this meeting, and I love that you listened to the whisper even though your own inner voice was screaming and I ... just love everything about this. It's true. Your story matters. Because He's writing it, and we're loved. And oh how we're loved; shouldn't we listen long enough to communicate that? Beyond beautiful, Lisa. Just beyond.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this story. God's timing really is perfect. I was just talking with another mom friend about listening. REALLY listening - especially when you have your own agenda and God's agenda is far different. :) Your story touched my heart (and my tear ducts) today. Thank you.

  10. This is just beautiful. How often do we say "your story matters" and I listen without really listening and hearing. This is such an important reminder and a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

  11. " What makes my agenda so important that I can’t take an hour to validate the existence of another human being? " this is an awesome story - thank you for sharing. your story matters. :) I soaked up every word!

  12. I work in a retirement community and when I initially started working there I had the old person avoidance issues. It's understandable it's like staring at your own mortality everyday, but you know what? Just like Bob they have THE best stories, and through them I've learned to listen better, slow down and just be...I love this story, and actually shared it with my co-workers. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Your writing is amazing. You have such great insight. Your story matters....I need this reminder daily! Thank you!