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Soul Searching

Tom Saretsky


Taking time to read the story of another’s life

I had a chance conversation with a student about a novel she was reading. It was a thick novel — almost 900 pages. She obviously wasn’t judging the book by its cover, as it was one of her favourite authors. I stated the obvious, “You like to read,” to which she refreshingly, and enthusiastically, responded, “Yes,” and then added, “I will be finished it in a few days.”

I was impressed. Reading is one of life’s great pleasures, and to lose oneself in the pages of a good novel or an interesting short story is time well spent, providing you stay with it awhile.
I like to read, although I’m not a very fast reader. The 900-page novel my student was reading would take me considerably longer than a few days.

My sister is a voracious reader, and she instilled a love of reading in her own children. Her children were always exposed to good books when they were young. The time she spent reading to them inspired me to do the same with mine. The world of imagination opened up for her kids, and their current creativity and artistic flair for language, music and art was borne out of those precious times with good books.

One of the greatest gifts you can give to children is your time spent reading to them, but I don’t think people read much anymore. Reading is being replaced with quicker, more instantaneously gratifying pursuits like games on computers, iPads, iPods, or smartphones. I fear the sound of a turning page or the smell of a new or old book is giving way to the lights and sounds of high-tech computer wizardry. 

It takes time, effort and patience to read, because one must stay with it awhile. Attention spans are not what they used to be. French mathematician Blaise Pascal lamented a few hundred years ago that all human evil comes from man’s inability to sit still in a chair for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes back then was considered a short period of time. Today, the attention span is hardly 30 seconds!

Do we not have time anymore? Are we too busy? Do we think the same attitudes or excuses we make for not reading could also be applied to relationships? Do we not have time for them anymore? Do we think they’re too much work?

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, appear to be shortchanging relationships. How well do we really get to know someone through social media? Based on someone’s posts, we get snapshots of their lives: occasionally a few references from their past, and sometimes short hints about what they’re doing. There’s no full understanding of who they really are. They leave their story with many blanks to fill, and depending on what they share, we will fill the blanks with false assumptions and harsh judgments, because we don’t completely know their story.

This has been especially true in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali and elsewhere. Take a quick glance at any social media site, and you will discover vitriolic anti-Muslim sentiment. Facebook posts, tweets, re-tweets, and shared links would have us believe that Canada is about to allow 25,000 terrorists into the country, that Shariah law will be the norm, and that the Islamic religion will be a threat to our way of life. The atrocities of the IS terrorists are concerning, but their story isn’t the same story of the thousands of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing their country, looking for a safe homeland.

Do we care to read a refugee’s story, or listen to accounts of their experiences of homelessness? Facebook posts passing personal opinion as fact simply weave a stickier web of ignorance that can snare many who prefer not to listen and understand. Ignorance is an insidious disease, but taking the time to read, to listen and to being open enough to learn can cure this ailment.

The author R.P. Evans once wrote, “Rarely do we invest the time to open the book of another’s life; when we do, we are usually surprised to find its cover so misleading and its reviews so flawed.” My prayer is that we never judge a person by what we see on their cover, but that we take the time to open the book of their life. May we find the time to turn their pages, attend with interest, read carefully the words they speak, and discover what makes their life such an interesting and engaging story. It’s this kind of listening that creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts of another person. You never know — you might just stay with it awhile, and they might find a home in you.   

Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.