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.

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