Last night I was sitting out in front of the house, listening to a podcast and watching folks pass by, when my host grandma came out to find me. "Jessica," she asked, "Did you hear what happened at that school in your country?" I told her that I had. "It's so terrible." It was. "How old was he--the killer?" About 20.
"This is the second or third one in your country this year." she continued. "It's because of all those drugs. They say it's all Colombia, but look what people do in your country." Then she sauntered away, hair rollers and all, leaving me alone with my podcast on the porch.
The podcast, incidentally, was a lecture by a Buddhist teacher named Gil Fronsdal, entitled "The Mindfulness of Listening." One concept he examined was that of paying attention. While listening, he suggested, 50% of your attention should be on the other person, and 50% on yourself.
While I was listening to my host grandmother, the 50% of my attention focused on myself would have picked up: indignation. Defensiveness. Frustration.
Disagreement, I suppose, would be the mildest possibility. I don't agree with my host grandmother. I think the U.S. has a drug problem, but I think the shooting in Connecticut probably had more to do with gun control (or lack thereof) than with drug policy, and I really don't like my host grandma's making uninformed and inaccurate conclusions, especially when she shares them tactlessly in the wake of a pretty traumatic event that clearly had more impact on my country than on hers.
So that's my 50%.
But 50% of the attention goes to her, and I listened to my host grandma--and not just to what she thought about the shooting in Connecticut, but also to how she perceives Colombia and the U.S., and the drug issue that she believes unjustly taints Colombia's reputation worldwide.
Earlier in the podcast, the lecturer told a story to illustrate just how much people need to be heard. Folks from the U.S. had gone, he explained, to parts of the world with a lot of conflict and anti-U.S. sentiment, like Palestine and Russia. And these people set up card tables and chairs, and sat there with signs that read, "American willing to listen." And they were. And they did. And it helped.
The way I see it, carrying around a sign that says, "American willing to listen" is a big part of being a Volunteer. Peace Corps has three goals, two of which are to foster cross-cultural understanding. And that requires listening.
Cross-cultural listening is really hard though--Colombians don't just want to tell me about Colombia; they also want to tell me a thing or two about the United States. It isn't always pretty. For a variety of reasons (some more understandable than others), a lot of people dislike the U.S., and some of those people aren't shy about it. A PCV friend of mine has a teacher at the school where she works who will heckle her about the U.S. every single time they cross paths.
But I try to hear people out. I don't like it when a Colombian wails on the U.S., and I often do end up defending or clarifying or countering, but I attempt to listen. Because, at the very least, I do recognize that this may be the first and only time that an American has listened to what this Colombian has to say.
American culture, American news, American economics, American foreign policy are all broadcast (quite literally) all over the world at full volume. A lot of people end up listening, whether they want to or not. In Colombia you can find American TV shows, American movies, American politics, American brands, American English. And does it go the other way? Do people in the U.S. hear the cultures and worldviews of folks elsewhere? Not so much. Once in a while, maybe, but it's far from an equal exchange.
People want to be heard. They probably want other things to, and just listening won't solve all our problems. But if you don't start there, you won't get anywhere.
That's what I learned in Peace Corps.