Friday, April 11, 2008

Listening wholeheartedly

One of the things I really like about travel is that it forces me to live on somebody else's terms for a while. I started to get the hang of this when my late wife Luci and I started visiting Caribbean islands. I distinctly remember my first lesson on our first trip. We left the airport and made our way to the dock where we would take a boat to our island. It had already been a little difficult for me, and I became impatient as we sat on the commuter boat and waited to get under way. There may have been a schedule, but it was obviously unimportant to the crew. A fellow passenger, hearing my complaints, remarked that things there happened on "island time" and I might as well relax and get used to it.

I did manage to relax, however briefly, whenever we went to the Virgin Islands. And I learned to accept "island time" as one part of a very pleasant experience.

There are lots of ways that travel helps us to live on somebody else's terms. We eat different foods, we encounter different customs, we have an imperfect idea of what's going on, and sometimes even our hotel rooms have surprising features. Things are different, and if we're going to enjoy our trip we have to learn to enjoy what we have then and there. And you know what? The pleasures can be really intense.

This all tends to help me when I meet a foreigner, either at home or abroad. By now I expect difference, and I even expect that I'll find many of the differences to be enjoyable. Travel has helped me to listen in a new way since I realize that I probably don't know as much about this person as I might be tempted to imagine.

My friend Atef Aziz articulated what this is all about. He said that if we're really going to hear somebody, we have to set aside any idea of knowing anything in advance. If we think we know what the other guy is going to say, we're unlikely to hear what he actually says. Surely Atef is right.

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