I believe great changes originate in front-porch conversations.
This summer I worked as a resident counselor at Camp Mowana, a little Lutheran camp in Southern Ohio. On most days, my job could hardly be called “work”. I often marvel that I was paid to sing the Squirrel Song and play Capture the Flag.
Occasionally, however, I would encounter an unhappy camper. I particularly remember one eleven-year-old girl who refused to participate in any of the activities. She bickered with her cabin mates, turned her nose up at the food, and asked me if she could just go home.
As someone who loved being at camp, I was always stunned by the attitude of these kids. I struggled to understand why a child would choose to be miserable while exciting opportunities abound. After cursing and splashing her cabin mates one day during swim time, this problematic camper ran to the porch of a nearby cabin to sit alone. I trudged up the hill ready to recite the classic camp counselor speech: “You have the choice whether or not you have fun this week… It’s your decision not to participate, but you’ll have a lot more fun and meet more people if you do…”.
To my surprise, as soon as I sat down, she began to talk. But she was not complaining about the food or the bugs. Instead, she unloaded a life story filled with more heartache and confusion than I would think possible for a child so young. She
explained that she had been moved from home-to-home for quite some time. She was simply exhausted by constantly living with strangers. As she wiped the tears from her eyes, I began to appreciate the smaller efforts she had been making throughout the week. If I never heard her perspective on the situation, I would have never understood her difficulties with the other campers.
I never did perform the classic camp counselor speech. In fact, I am not sure I talked at all. I just listened. From there, she was able to talk much of the issues out herself. By the end of the week, she was canoeing with the other girls and eating the food. Nothing I said changed her attitude, but I was willing to listen—perhaps I was the first to listen rather than to scold. I am convinced listening made all the difference.
All the people I most admire in my life have been listeners. My best friends do not think of a situation in their life to compare to mine; they do not try to give advice, or criticize my decisions. They let me talk, and try to understand.
People are often misled to believe great men give great speeches. We are reminded of Dr. King’s Dream and of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. These speeches came first from listening to the pains of a country, until the writers knew their subject in-and-out, understanding their audience beyond a doubt. History has proven the greatest men are not good speakers, but good listeners.
Listening is not easy. Many times, I feel I need to defend my perspective, or I quickly judge what the speaker says. Good listening takes a conscious effort. I believe that through making this effort, through honestly trying to understand our fellow man, we can solve problems as complex as social injustices and as vital as a camper’s happiness.
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