Saturday, April 2, 2016

What's That Like?

During a recent appointment with a doctor I've been seeing for my whole life, I found myself having a conversation that reminded me of the importance of being a good listener. My Harvard educated orthopedic surgeon asked me about my part time job as an aide in an elementary school cafeteria, but the thing that really stood out to me was that he listened, sincerely and intently, to what I had to say. He could have dismissed me, because he had more important things to do, or simply because, according to the social norms of the world we inhabit, a surgeon doesn't necessarily have to listen to my perspective on the daily struggles of a cafeteria aside. But he's known me since I was one day old, and even though you could say he's just doing his job, I think he has a little bit of vested interest in anything in my life that's positive, because he's done a lot of work to fine tune the negatives of the birth defect I was born with so that I can function at my best, and I get the feeling he's glad to hear I'm doing something somewhat productive.
     I've always appreciated good listeners, and prided myself on being the kind of friend who can always be counted on to listen. What drew me to journalism back in high school, other than my love of writing, was that it gave me, as introverted and awkward as I am, a way to connect with people through listening. I love interviewing someone and getting to hear them talk about something they have a genuine interest in, even if it's a topic I have no personal knowledge of. My favorite thing about working with children now is that so many of them are so open and not worried too much yet about the opinions of others, and that makes them generally easy and fun to talk too.
     The easy thing about people like that doctor who I'm very comfortable with, and the children I see at work five days a week, is that they're not often bringing up things that I disagree with or that require me to consider a worldview different from my own. And if a child does approach me and say something I find disagreeable, I have the option of simply telling them to go sit down. All jokes aside, I can't go through life telling everyone I don't agree with to "go sit down", so I have to learn to listen, even when it's unpleasant for me.
     My first semester living away from home, I experienced the biggest culture shock of my life so far. Although my parents did a great job of making sure my brother and I were exposed to places outside of Mathews when we were younger, living in such a small secluded place did limit me in ways I didn't even realize until I left it for the first time. I went from a high school where probably 95% of my graduating class was comprised of white people, to a college where 60% of students living in the dorms where not white. During the first few weeks of my first semester, I met a friend of a friend who was openly gay, the first person I ever met who identified as such, and I was completely at a loss trying to figure out the best way to react to this new experience. Even as I'm writing this, I'm realizing that before I went to college, I knew of only two people who classified themselves as Democrats. I really was that limited in my experiences, and I had a lot to learn.
     That first year away from home brought a lot of uncomfortable moments, where I felt threatened by beliefs and opinions that challenged my own way of thinking, but through that discomfort, I learned a lot about listening even when all I want to do is argue. I came to realize that I need to give everyone the basic respect of listening, even when I don't agree with what is being said. It also taught me to appreciate the value of easy conversations with like minded people, and to respect the moments when I have the privilege of being a listener, because it is a privilege, earned through trust. No two people on earth will ever have all of the exact same experiences, and that means that we all grow up with different views about the world around us. Throughout history, these different views have been the cause of much cruelty, suffering, and even death. God himself said that there we will have trouble in this world, and the older I get, the more I believe that "world peace" is an oxymoron. And yet, while I am not naive enough to think that everyone in the world will ever be able to get along, or that any of us can remedy that insurmountable dilemma, I do think that positive things have the potential to take place whenever someone takes the time to be a truly good listener. We can't fix everything, but we can all ask "What's that like?", and really listen to the answer. It might not change the world, but I think it's a good place to start.