William Deresiewicz once said, “People’s stories are the most personal things they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them.”

We live in such a fast-paced world where everyone is just trying to “secure the bag,” get a promotion at work, get good grades, or just simply survive. But what if we all just stopped for a little bit, to just listen, and to tell our stories? Perhaps we’d be more compassionate, less judgemental and we’d live life to the fullest. Life would essentially have greater meaning.

Our personal stories are the common thread that links all of humanity. We’ve all been through adversity. Although who we are is never fully determined by our stories, our stories do make up a large part of who we are and who we essentially become. So when we acknowledge our own stories as well as other people’s stories and the role they play in our lives, we are able to unleash a part of our humanity that we might not even know exists.

In my life of just 15 years, I’ve met and interacted with many people from diverse backgrounds. Many times, I’ve been privileged enough and blessed to be let in on their personal stories, and each time I think to myself, “It’s amazing how literally everyone has a story.”

I’ve spoken with people who clean houses for a living. I’ve spoken with people who wake up and go to the tavern first thing in the morning and that’s also where you’ll find them when the sun sets. I’ve spoken with people whose entire life seemed to be falling apart and I’ve spoken with people who appear to have a perfect life.

These weren’t all necessarily easy conversations; I didn’t always agree with the choices they’d made. But I’ve been able to value, respect and hold each of these conversations and stories in the same regard because I understand that my role is not to judge but to listen and to learn.

There is a particular experience in my life that changed my understanding of the fact that everyone has a story. When I was in grade 7, we had a school trip to prison. We were understandably terrified. We didn’t know what to expect. Well, actually we did. We had preconceived judgements that we’d inherited from society.

We went there expecting to see heartless murderers and conniving thieves, which we did. But we also met human beings who had stories. We met a 16-year-old who was arrested for theft. We met a Brazilian woman who was serving time for drug trafficking and we also met a lady who’d stabbed her husband to death after years of him abusing her.

A certain interaction at the prison changed my perception. From the time we walked into the prison courtyard, there was one particular lady who caught our attention. She had beautiful hair, pretty nails and what many would say was a stunning figure. Being naive and perhaps ignorant 13-year-olds, we said to each other, “What is a pretty lady like her doing here?”

From the moment she started speaking, I promised myself to keep an open mind. She told us about how her boyfriend at the time introduced her to fraud. She ended up being arrested and he wasn’t. She was pregnant when she was arrested, but her mother took the baby in. She was in the SRC and a clever child at school who was good with maths, which helped with the bank fraud. I remember her saying, “I am in this correctional facility as a woman who is being corrected.”

When I first walked into that prison, my eyes and my mind saw offenders who deserved to rot in jail. When I left, my heart saw human beings who’d committed some unforgivable crimes but were on the path to correcting their lives. It didn’t make their actions right, but they taught me a lot about life.

Everyone has a story, every single one of us. May we strive to rewrite and take pride in the narratives of our lives. Before we judge, may we take time to listen not only with our ears but also with our hearts. May we always remember that it is never fair to judge someone’s story by the chapter we walked in on. May we always seek the story within.