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Prepared by: Virginia Turner
Please indulge me as I share what may appear on the surface to be an unimportant encounter that I experienced on my last night in Rome, Italy. I feel that I shall be reflecting on this encounter for some time as there are many lessons contained within it. However, as we have certain deadlines, I shall do my best to capture some of my thoughts here now.
It was late evening and I had left the warmth of my AIRBNB hotel in search of the perfect Italian restaurant and had visions of some wonderful soup and perhaps that classic side dish – the Roman Artichoke – which had recently been introduced to me by my Professor as “one of the classic dishes” of the region. Finally I settled upon a small Italian restaurant on a side street and I ordered the soup and artichoke side dish. The evening passed relatively uneventfully but, as I was about midway through my meal, a man entered the restaurant with red roses in hand attempting to sell the roses to the clientele, but without much success. The restaurant staff ignored him but neither did they obstruct him from passing through the restaurant. When he came to my table I initially greeted him in Italian “Buono Sera” and he responded in kind. Quickly reaching the extent of my Italian, and noting he did not look Italian, I switched to English and asked him where he was from and he responded “I am from Bangladesh, I am Bangladeshi.” It did not take much prompting for him to tell me about how life was so hard for him in India and how he felt he had to come to Italy ‘for a better life.’
As I continued to listen attentively to this man, it was as if a mask had fallen away from his face, his eyes became lively and he smiled at times. He asked where I was from and I told him “from U.S., California, close to San Francisco” and he asked about what that was like to live there. We talked of the weather and he appeared very happy that any person would care to listen to him. At one point he tried to give me all his roses. “No, thank you, you should sell them” and then, “Here let me buy one, how much?” The man was ecstatic at this point and thanked me profusely as we said our good-byes. During our entire encounter, the restaurant staff and all customers had ignored us as if we were both invisible.
I paid my bill and made my way back to the hotel; the encounter with the man played back in my head. Something had happened to me that seemed quite natural but felt quite different to me for I had given my complete and full attention to a stranger. And somehow that stranger recognized that I really wanted to hear their story and to understand how they came to be where they are at this moment in their life. That stranger understood “true listening” was in progress and they decided to open up their life experience to me and to trust me with that which was a sacred trust. This is what I believe Pope Francis, as the first Jesuit Pope, was talking about when he mentions the “stories of precious value’ that all refugees have to tell. And this is perhaps what the Jesuits mean by ‘listening’ as part of their values surrounding accompaniment and a way of being with those that they serve, or as one portion of the JRS website put it “Being with refugees and asylum seekers, including detainees, you learn the importance of listening, an attentive non-judgmental listening, which conveys that the person and his story matter.”
I had been given a glimpse of this ‘selfless listening’ in a few moments with a stranger in a small Italian Restaurant and am still reflecting on what this may mean for me going forward on my journey.
Then I reflected upon how I would “normally” claim that I was listening to those around me. I would proclaim that I had been listening to someone, but, in reality I was most likely busy anticipating what the other person would say next, and perhaps even crafting my response to what they were saying. Of course this makes true listening impossible. And I have been both the victim and perpetrator of the worst scenario, that is, the person who interrupted the speaker, or who was interrupted before I had finished speaking. This is not the correct way of listening or communicating with others, for just as the stranger in the restaurant can sense that you are attentive (or not) to their message, any speaker can sense whether you are truly “hearing” what they have to say.
In the past I had taken classes in communication stressing the importance of accurate communication in the context of the business world. (Haven’t we all taken these classes?) These communication courses are part of every business school curriculum and accuracy is often emphasized. What is missing are the important Jesuit themes of mutual respect and sincerity when communicating with those around us. Too often these important cornerstones of communication are brushed aside or, worse, not mentioned at all in traditional business school courses. Generally one takes the test to pass the so-called “Business Communications Class” and moves on to the next class without incorporating any improvements in our communications with others, business or personal. This is the non-Jesuit style of teaching students.
My encounter was a pivotal moment for it touched my life in a very real way and how that experience was available to me only after my year and half of Jesuit education at University of San Francisco and, more specifically, after I had completed the AGI / Rome program. And it is only through my reflections after the encounter which I attempt to describe that I am cognizant of a huge difference between what I know call ‘surface listening’ versus ‘selfless listening.’ The latter is important not merely out of respect for others, but because this latter type of listening can make such a positive difference to both listener and speaker. I feel I am now attempting to cross the bridge from reflection to action but that this step has not been defined as of this writing and hope to outreach with others on this important step as I continue to reflect on my AGI / Rome experience.
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For more see: http://sjweb.info/documents/education/pedagogy_en.pdf
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