Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Time

A few months ago I met a young Egyptian judge who was in Washington, DC, taking part in a fellowship program. “The problem with Americans is that they never have any time,” he told me. “Often I start a conversation with a person and he will say “Oh, that’s so interesting, I’d love to hear more about that.” But when I say, “Well, can we sit and talk for a few minutes, maybe have a cup of coffee?” he says, “I can’t stop now, I have another appointment.” And so the real conversation never happens, he said, noting sadly that he had made more friendships with people from other countries in Washington than with Americans.

I often feel that one of the greatest diseases in this country is over-busyness. Are we insecure if every minute of our days is not filled with some activity? Do we fear empty space?

The physical structures of American society do not encourage conversation. In Richmond, like many cities, we have wonderful neighborhoods with older homes where the original front porches have been removed. Until the days of air conditioning and TV people would sit and greet neighbors and passers-by. Today we move from hermetically sealed homes to solitary journeys in automobiles, or commute in trains and buses listening to iPods with our ears blocked to the world around us. We rush from one engagement to the next, often eating on the run, and becoming increasingly stressed.   

Facebook and text messaging are wonderful tools but they are no substitute for face-to-face interaction. A recent survey showed that the more Facebook contacts a person has the less likely he or she is to know the person living next door. When I led a workshop in a university last year, I asked students to identify qualities that helped to build trust. Interestingly, “willingness to make time” featured in many of their responses.

How do we make time? I used to laugh at the British rituals of “elevenses” and afternoon tea. But maybe Americans would benefit by adopting some habits that force us to slow down.

The Swedish author Henning Mankell wrote a fascinating column in the New York Times on December 10 entitled “The Art of Listening.” Mankell has lived “off and on” in Mozambique for nearly 25 years. “The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa,” he writes, “is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.”

He continues, “In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else.” He celebrates Africa’s “unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present,” and concludes: “What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.”

At we enter the holiday season, let’s slow down, make time to listen to one another, and share our stories.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Taking Care of our Politicians

Driving to Delaware for the family Thanksgiving we stopped for lunch. "My name is Christy and I will be taking care of you," announces the bright young woman who hands us a menu. And she really seems to mean it.

Later we stop at Kmart for supplies. We remark to one of the staff that the store has advertised that it will be open 24 hours a day over the holiday to get a jump on 'Black Friday' and we hope she will have time to enjoy some turkey. She replies cheerfully, "I will be doing the labeling on the first shift so I'll be off by 6am!"

One of the things that constantly surprises and impresses me is the genuine cheerfulness and spirit of service shown by so many Americans who work long hours for minimal pay. All across this country people do what needs to be done to take care of their families. And after a full day’s work many are taking care of their neighbors and their neighborhoods. This is the real world beyond the gridlock of Capitol Hill where politicians seem to inhabit a different universe.

But politicians are human too. Most enter public service with high ideals and often at considerable cost to themselves and their families. We elect them (if we bother to vote at all) and then expect them to become models of perfection, willing to have every aspect of their lives scrutinized by the media. They work under intolerable pressure. We rarely interact with them except to register a complaint or to advocate for some policy or legislation.   

At the recent Trust Factor forum in Washington, Mee Moua, a former state senator from Minnesota, urged her audience to "create authentic relationships with our civic and elected leaders, instead of transactional relationships where we only contact them when we need something.”

So, instead of just lobbying or vilifying politicians we might try a different approach. What if more of us were to offer them real friendship, perhaps invite them to an informal meal or cup of coffee with neighbors in our homes? We might start a conversation by saying: "We appreciate your willingness to serve our community. We are not here to debate politics. We have no agenda except to understand how we can help you do your best work. Please share with us what concerns you most at this time.” We might reach out even to those whose political views are different from our own.

Sure, it sounds simplistic and yes of course there are self-serving office holders. But our leaders are more likely to show political courage and take risks for the common good if they are surrounded by networks of selfless citizens who encourage them, speak honestly, and provide moral support. I choose to believe that if more of us took care of our politicians we might begin to change the political climate in Washington.