Everyone Has a Personal History That Led Them to Where They Are Today   

LincolnYou shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

On Presidents’ Day, I’m remembering the first book I ever read about Abraham Lincoln. I was a first-grader assigned to read a biography about a hero, and then write a report on it. 

The cover showed an awkward-looking boy in ill-fitting overalls. He was carrying an axe over one shoulder and a tied-up stack of books over the other.

I couldn’t believe this gangly boy would one day be the stately, top-hatted Lincoln familiar to all. While I wasn’t exactly “judging a book by its cover,” I’d only perceived Lincoln as a fully realized adult – and as a dignified president. I hadn’t focused on his life’s formative experiences.  

We might not think about Lincoln’s many disadvantages, setbacks and tragedies, such as his limited early education, his prior electoral defeats, the death of his 11-year-old son, and his battle with depression.

Similarly, we often judge people based upon their present status. But everyone has a personal history that led them to where they are today.    

Many people with fully developed cognitive skills overlook this. We judge a person based upon the way that person “presents” at this moment. Indeed, entire systems of care have done this for centuries. 

We set forth to treat people struggling with psychiatric challenges, with homelessness, with a criminal history, or with suicidal thoughts. But we so often don’t take into account the experiences that had brought that person here before us.

We zero in on the person’s shortcomings and failures. We start to think that their present travails fully define their character.

This outlook lowers our expectations for their future – and can perpetuate care systems that reinforce the cycle of adverse experiences people face.

There’s a different way. 

If we view individuals as the sum of their past experiences, if we take time to “read the pages of their book,” we may discover a history of neglect, loss, or other trauma that had never been properly worked through. 

This approach changes the way we “treat” that person. By focusing on healing from past trauma, and by harboring genuine hope for the future, we can move beyond the constraints of the moment. We can help people write a promising, new chapter in their life stories.

There was much more to Lincoln than the top hat covering his head. And when it comes to understanding someone’s life story, we should dig deeper – and not just “judge a book by its cover.”

7 thoughts on “Everyone Has a Personal History That Led Them to Where They Are Today   

  1. Marsha Lazarus February 15, 2021 / 10:32 am

    Beautifully-written Colleen! I’m looking forward to reading more…And what a perfect match – CEO of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness!

    Marsha Lazarus
    dba Your Career Fit Matters!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Meryl Cassidy February 15, 2021 / 12:32 pm

    beautiful:) I once read that Lincoln, whenever he was overcome with a depressive episode, would walk outside and start helping his neighbors. What a brilliant coping strategy!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Hoffman February 15, 2021 / 4:24 pm

    Very well said. We need to take much more of a strength-based approach with those we serve. Let’s focus on what they CAN do; their unique talents. Thanks for sharing this and welcome to MHAW!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gail Feldman February 16, 2021 / 1:50 pm

    Beautifully written! Thank you so much for the reminder to embrace each person as a welcomed friend! We all share moments in time together defined by our own thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. When we align with positivity, that is what we see! One of my favorite quotes is, ” Be yourself, everyone else is already taken!” Let’s celebrate one another. Congratulations Colleen and thanks for sharing!


  5. THERESA HIGHTOWER February 18, 2021 / 12:30 pm

    Well perceived and well said coleen. All too often we judge people by their present presenting situations as if they were born today .


  6. Benjamin (Ben) Brehl February 26, 2021 / 7:07 pm

    Thank you so much, Colleen! Such a empathetic, wise and hopeful sentiment; I would like to welcome you with much gratefulness that you are taking Mike’s place and as I worked with you at Federation several years ago, I KNOW that picking you was a good choice. Your uplifting piece brings to mind a similar writing by the very insightful writer, Oscar Wilde: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Personally, I have had much of my life being composed of darkness, disconnect from others and a lot of negative feedback from others – ranging from the stranger on the street to those who are dear to me. But, a relatively short time ago, in conjunction with several life-affirming successes (such as getting Peer Specialist employment), I have been the recipient of a Rejuvenation of Good Feeling, as I prefer to call it – becoming blessed with a Peace of mind that I would not trade for anything. While I still have difficulties, life is much improved – Gratitude is a theme that I prefer to foster. My time spent at the Pollock Center/Clubhouse of Suffolk PROS Program (from 2013 to now) has most definitely been a big catalyst of that happening in my life. The first time I heard the Wilde quote was from my Pollock Center Advisor (Sky Allocca) during a discussion the two of us had last year; people like you and her, and the people that Pollock Center employs, are people who strive to assist people, such as myself, out of the darkness and into the Light. Thank You, and welcome!


  7. Meryl June 11, 2021 / 3:26 pm

    Very touched by this and I relate whole-heartedly….


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