Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Listening / My Ways and Your Ways

I wonder if the most helpful and courageous words each one of us might say to one another would be those God speaks to (and through) his prophet Isaiah: “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts.”

I don't want to be sacrilegious. But have you ever thought about those words? Can you picture saying them to your spouse? Not that (as in contrast with the original context) "my" thoughts are higher and better and came with a guarantee. But in the simpler sense... what if we all gave each other the gift of honestly acknowledging that each of us has a bit of a different angle on the world? Wouldn’t our depth perception increase if we could bring those angles together for a fuller, richer, picture? Wouldn’t our relationships be better if we could more frequently recognize, articulate, and honor each other for our differences, and delight in discovering a new point of view?

This paradox continues to amaze me: that all of us are more alike than we are different, yet made in unique designs that do not fit the stereotypes with which we try to understand one another. That we all have so much common ground and yet are each designed with a unique mix of traits and tendencies defying classification.

But admitting our differences and listening to one another with true kindness and openness are incredibly hard work. Draining. Especially when it comes to those who are close to us or seem, in many ways, most like us, where we feel we have the right to be understood just by being ourselves.

During the year I spent in Central Asia I interviewed members of one team that struggled to communicate with one another in Uzbek, a second or third language for each of them, because they had no other common language.

Another team could communicate comfortably in English, but had significant cultural differences. In fact, each one of the couples was made of two people born in different countries.

In both cases, members of these teams (and marriages) knew they would have to work at understanding and being understood. They expected misunderstandings and culture clashes and worked hard to resolve them.

Not so for a more homogeneous team, in another city, made up of people from one country and all around the same age. They all bore great feelings of disappointment that they could not, as a group, get along and provide a supportive network for one another. They expected unity to come naturally and were almost offended when it did not.

So perhaps expectations play a part: when you know someone else is different from you, you may set your sights lower, work a little harder, and be pleased to find common ground. When you expect someone to be like you, you think the other person should be able to read your mind. If so, you may be surprised and undone by the differences that nevertheless arise.


It’s unusual to see those two truths dancing together with grace and beauty, but one place I do see it is in the relationship between books and their readers. The act of reading celebrates both: It opens up new worlds, and it holds up mirrors that we might see ourselves reflected and know that we are not alone.

So, maybe reading is a good place to practice seeing the world from someone else's point of view.

I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s 1998 slim tribute, How Reading Changed My Life. As a child who read because she loved it more than any other activity on earth, she says,

“I felt that I too existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer, but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.” (p. 6)

And even as an adult, she found reading a haven:

“I remember the first year after my second child was born, what I can remember of it at all, as a year of disarray, of overturned glasses of milk, of toys on the floor, of hours from sunrise to sunset that were horribly busy but filled with what, at the end of the day, seemed like absolutely nothing at all. … What saved my sanity was disappearing if only for the fifteen minutes before I inevitably began to nod off in bed, into the dark and placid English rooms of Anita Brookner’s newest novel, into the convoluted plots of Elmore Leonard’s latest thriller, into one of my old favorites, Breakfast at Tiffanies, Goodbye, Columbus, Our Mutual Friend, Wuthering Heights. The romantic ramblings of Heathcliff make a piquant counterpoint to dirty diapers, that’s for sure. And as it was for me when I was young and surrounded by siblings, as it is today when I am surrounded by children, reading continues to provide an escape from a crowded house into an imaginary room of one’s own.” (p. 31)

Perhaps good conversation can accomplish the same thing as reading does. I love this quote from the American Library Association’s Hazel Rochman:

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (In Quindlen, p. 7)

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