After participating in the American Express – The Aspen Institute Academy 2.0: a Fellowship for Emerging Nonprofit Leaders, I have come back to Grand Rapids with homework to do.
It was a week of intensity. The beautiful landscapes, the thought-provoking readings, and the amazing people that were part of it: all of these elements created a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everybody in the room was a teacher for me. They are my giants and I am tremendously grateful and humbled by their experience and passion. I gained not only great insight from them, but also friendships I cherish.
It was Friday at noon, right at the end of the seminar, and I was recalling my greatest lesson from the week. I shared with the group that for me it all came together in one word: listening. It sounds fairly simple, but come to think about it: do we really listen?
During this week in Aspen I learned that I must work hard to listen on another level. I used to listen well and I considered myself a good listener, and I realized I did this with the intention to problem-solve. During my professional studies I was trained to listen and analyze complex arguments, find ways to discover their contradictions, formulate rebuttals, and try to outsmart them. I listened and I put together the pieces in a way that I could come up with a better argument or continue a conversation in what I considered a higher level. I thought critical thinking meant unearthing the blueprint of the argument set forth by others and building an equally strong counter-argument. I though that is how you showed you were smart. I thought that is how you earned your keep.
But, isn’t this a hollow and self-serving activity? Do we listen to win, or do we listen to understand? Do we listen to be informed, or do we listen to stand in other people’s shoes and come to internalize who they are within us? That is a scary thought: coming to understand others so deeply that the line between “you” and “me” might disappear. Perhaps what I considered critical thinking was a defense mechanism to protect myself from others. It is scary, indeed, to realize you might not only agree with others, but see and feel the world as they do.
That’s another level of listening. Listen because you care, not because you need to; listen because you want to understand, not because you want to disarm; listen to understand the world like others do, not to find weaknesses in their worldview that your own can defeat. Listen deeply and listen humanely. Listen because you honor the other person. Listen because you acknowledge that you have so much to learn from others. Know yourself small in an enormous world and enjoy the vast universe that surrounds you. The journey is long and that is something to celebrate.
I am far from exemplifying this position, and this week in Aspen has inspired me to work hard towards this end. I wish to put into practice what my fellow Fellows have shown me by striving to listen on another level. If we can do this conscientiously, we will be able to honor everyone around us.
Listening to others in this higher level, where the boundaries between each other disappear, is the key to building a community where justice comes first, justice comes last, and justice comes in the middle.