While working a summer job in South Africa, Peggy Ramin found that she acquired a skill she hadn't expected to learn. When she closed her mouth and opened her heart, she learned to really listen to the stories of those around her.
I come from one of those families where you have to yell at the dinner table in order to get a word in edgewise. Everyone has a strong opinion, talks at the same time, and no one has a problem with instigating potentially heated arguments. An inordinate number of my aunts and uncles are lawyers; rousing discussions on politics are considered polite conversation. We’re that kind of family.
Belonging to a family like mine has made me more curious, more interested in the world around me, and much more inclined to question anything anyone tells me. But it has also made me realize that I am not a very good listener. And when I say “listening,” I am not referring to the nodding-your-head-and-politely-murmuring-Uh-huh-or-Ooh-I-see variety. I mean the kind of listening where you find yourself deeply identifying with the person you’re speaking with, when their story becomes so vivid that your world becomes less about you and more about them. No, I was never very good at that.
I spent the summer of 2010 living in South Africa. By day, I was working for a fabulous non-profit organization called Noah, which works tirelessly on behalf of orphaned and vulnerable children affected by the AIDS pandemic; by weekend, I hopped from exotic, spicy Durban to the stunning vistas of Cape Town to the natural wonders of Victoria Falls. I saw it all, and then some.
But if you asked me what I really did in South Africa, I would tell you one thing: I listened. I listened to a Nigerian taxi driver’s memories of his fifth birthday; I listened to a German kite surfer’s description of the beaches of Brazil; I listened to a 20-something, HIV+ co-worker tell an uproarious account of his weekend; I listened to a South African tour guide’s fond recollections of the start up of her travel agency; I listened to a British friend’s description of his grandmother’s abusive first marriage. I listened, and I listened. And sometimes I spoke…but mostly I listened.
And had I not spent two months listening, I might have missed the moment a little girl at one of Noah’s community centers, orphaned at the tender age of three, whispered after a long silence, “I love you.” I might have missed that, had I not learned to listen.
Before that summer, I knew how to hear. I could sit down with anyone and hear their stories and nod and respond at the right times—but most of the time I was contemplating the next words out of my own mouth. Ever since my summer in South Africa, I’ve noticed that it’s in those moments when my mouth is closed and my mind is wide open that I’ve learned the most about other people, and perhaps about myself.
I believe that a person should know when to close her mouth, sit back, and focus on someone else. I believe in listening.
Peggy Ramin is a proud native Marylander, currently living in Manhattan and working for the New York Civil Liberties Union as a legislative aide. She wrote this essay after spending a summer living in South Africa during college.
Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.
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