As a Chicago resident who is also a huge Eagles fan, I spend almost every Sunday of the football season at Chicago’s Eagles bar, Mad River. This past season I went alone for the first time. I was scared of going to a bar alone but figured if I got there early enough, I could grab a bar seat which would make my solo journey a little less noticeable. When I got to the bar there was one seat left at the end next to a woman around my age. I figured she was saving it for a significant other, because I’m a bad feminist, but decided to ask anyways. To my surprise, she was also alone. I soon found that there are a lot of solo riders at sports bars. East Coast transplants who don’t have the energy to convince their Bears friends to peel away from their own game for an afternoon to come to an Eagle’s bar. I spent the rest of the season sitting at the bar and getting to know new Eagles fans.
Over the season, I inevitably made new friends. When you’re spending 6 hours, or 12 hours during playoff games, at a bar, you get to know people well. We exchanged stories of superstitions, trash talked Chip Kelly and shared fond memories of watching games with our families.
After the super bowl, one of my friends and I went back to Mad River for one last drink at the bar that brought us so much luck that year. Without the distraction of the game, we got to chatting about our lives. During the season I had been at Mad River healthy, was absent for a couple weeks, then came back on crutches. As I recovered, I went down to one crutch then eventually was able to start walking without them. Everyone knew I had knee surgery, and made sure to keep a close eye as I stood on the bar pouring champagne into the mouths of fellow fans after our NFC championship game, and she wanted to know the full story. I proceeded to tell her all about the accident and struggles with my first doctor. Before I could get into the story with my first doctor, she asked: “Did he let you get an MRI?” “No!” I responded, with a hint of excitement of recognition in my voice. “You always know a bad doctor when they won’t prescribe a MRI,” she responded. I could tell that she had experience in that area.
She proceeded to tell me a story about how she almost died due to a doctor not prescribing a MRI. When she pushed for it, her doctor still wouldn’t budge so she stopped complaining. On a visit home, her mom forced her to a different doctor, who saved her life with emergency surgery.
I was speechless. Here was this person who I got to know well over the course of several months, and I had no idea that she had such a near death, life defining experience. I knew she preferred American to Whiz but didn’t know why she had a scar on her head. It’s not so much that I didn’t notice it, I just didn’t really care when I saw it. Chalked it up to a childhood accident, or car accident, or who cares what, it’s not my business.
One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I don’t really ask anyone their story. It’s not that I don’t care about the story… in fact, I often find it the most captivating part of a person. I have just realized over time that people will tell you their story when they’re ready to tell you their story.
There are large chunks of my life that I’ve told to a stranger but am not willing to share with my close friends. There are things I don’t want my coworkers to know but broadcast on the internet. There are points in my life where I would tell telemarketers that my dad was traveling, or tell guys at a bar that he worked in IT, because I didn’t feel like being reminded of his death.
I’ve also learned a thing or two through life. My mom always taught me that there were things about people that were far more important than race and when I would refer to someone as “my Hispanic friend” she would press me to help her remember who the person was beyond their heritage. What was their personality? Where could she have met them before? My friends have expressed how much they hate that the “where are you from” question is the first question asked of them. I’ve learned that friends have hometowns they don’t like to be reminded of and asking about family life is not always a warm opening.
Through all those experiences, I’ve learned that we never need to feel pressured to hit every base right away when getting to know someone. I remember I used to hate when I would disclose that my dad died, only to be asked how immediately. I thought that was so self-indulgent. Why does it matter? So you can quantify my hardship? So you can make sure it was a freak accident that wouldn’t happen to you? The only time I was ever cool with it is when people asked because they could relate. My dad died in a car crash, their mom died in a hospital. Not an exact match, but enough of a community.
A lot of times we ask abrupt questions because we genuinely want to know more about people. The intention is fine – we’re curious beings and want to know about the others around us. But after my dad died, and I hated being asked that question, I started challenging myself to not ask other people questions that are too pointed. When I did that, I started finding out that the stories eventually come out anyways… now they just come out on the owner’s terms. I have to imagine that’s a much healthier way to go about things.
For quite a few years, I’ve trusted that I’ll eventually come to know the things about my friends that I’m curious about. I’ll learn their heritage when we’re in the middle of a conversation about our grandparents and they talk about their immigration process. I’ll figure out where they grew up when they tell me about their favorite baseball team. The reason they limp will become evident when they disclose their birth defect after a long night of chatting about god knows what. Eventually everything comes out, we just have to decide who sets the pace.
I usually find more out about people when I’m willing to talk about my scars. I expose some of mine, which makes them comfortable to do the same. Humans want to connect and we will unravel those complexities eventually. Let’s just find a pace that suits both of us.
I don’t always follow my own advice, and sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me, but I try to remind myself to work on letting others tell their own story. Allowing them the space to tell it, but also not asking the type of questions that will force them to. We always get there eventually.
I think the world is a little healthier if we let people lead their own stories.