The first words I heard when I picked up the phone Wednesday morning were, «Have you been watching the news? Don’t worry. Everyone here’s all right.» My ex-husband and our two children had arrived in Beirut, Lebanon the day before. They had been looking forward to relaxing in the balmy tropical climate and reacquainting themselves with their Lebanese cousins, and now it looked as if relaxation would not be on the menu.
I was worried, needless to say. I am worried. And yet, though the news reports portray the situation as dire, those two small voices – the voices of my children on the phone – are a comfort to me.
I have always believed in the importance of listening to small voices. They represent the real effects of any situation so much more accurately than grand ideals or lofty rhetoric. If we all elected to listen to small, modest voices more often than to follow the party line or to embrace the vision of some higher, abstract truth, the world would be a better, brighter, and far more relaxing place.
Without even realizing it, I believe I chose my current career as a foreign language instructor in order to facilitate my students’ ability to listen to, and truly hear, small voices. When we limit ourselves to communicating in our own tongue, it’s very easy to forget there are other ways of speaking, of hearing, even of seeing the world. Studying a foreign language offers many advantages, ranging from better business relationships in an increasingly global economy to better memory in old age. But perhaps the most important advantage bilingualism offers is the ability to perceive not only the big picture, but the small one as well.
It is instructive to remember that this country was on the belief that the freedom and rights of individuals are more important than abstract, nationalistic ideals. This nation’s very declaration of independence was a pin that deflated the stuffed shirt of a king who presumed to speak for us all. When our forefathers established our government, they did so with the intent that no man be deprived of his voice.
I’m not so naive as to believe that a more linguistically enlightened nation is necessarily a more equitable one. But learning another language, and using it to hear the small, distant voices beyond the babble of official proclamations and statements of national intent is definitely a good place to start. In the meantime, all I can do is sit back and hope that those in charge of crafting foreign policy and devising military strategies both here and abroad will pause to listen to the small voices of individuals caught in the middle of a battle over national defense, political autonomy, and other lofty matters.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.