“What kind of soup is that?” my son asked an elderly man sitting next to him on the Staten Island Ferry as he was eating his lunch. “Do you like it? What other foods do you have for lunch? Where are you from?” How long have you been here?” his questions continued on. We learned that he was from Haiti. We learned more about lunch and about him as we had a nice chat. Later, while in the airport, he got into a conversation with the man sitting next to him while we were waiting for our plane. “How old where you when you went to your first baseball game? Who did you want to win?” he asked the man. I listened to the man start talking to him about his first baseball game. I listened as he told the curly hair boy how it had been a birthday party he had attended. He had been eight. I listened to a certain wistfulness in the man’s voice as he went back to that eight- year-old birthday party and cheered on the Cubs in his mind’s eye once again. My son listened hard asking even more questions. We ended up enjoying a great conversation and the time waiting for our plane passed quickly.
All during our trip to New York City we met cool people and the curly hair boy talked with them and asked questions. But that doesn’t surprise me. He is, by nature, genuinely interested in people beyond the customary asking of “how are you?” or discussion of the weather. I heard a quote recently that says, “be brave to start a conversation that matters”. That is how he lives his life. One of his joys is finding out about the world through the stories of others.
I wonder why we sometimes lose that desire to learn more about people. Why do we forget to ask the important questions such as “what baseball team do you like? or what kind of food do you like to eat?” When I find myself in conversations like this, I see people smile more. I see a softening of the moment and something real develop—even if the conversation is brief. Hermann Hesse says, “It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other, and honor him for what he is.” It seems that one of the best ways to honor someone is to take a moment and ask about who they are.
Sometimes it might be intimidating or shy feeling to talk with someone—especially if they are different from you. But there is usually something in common with which to start, and a conversation opens up. I often find that when I talk with someone who I assume is vastly different from me I discover we have more in common than I realized. And when feeling unsure, a smile is a great conversational opener. Mother Theresa says, “let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”
It feels like we are such a divided nation. People firmly in their camps of what they feel is right. This makes listening and being curious about each other more difficult. Stephen R Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” But living like that is a guarded life. I don’t need to agree with a person’s religion or politics to find joy in the stories of his or her life. My day becomes more fun when I hear the fascinating stories that are literally everywhere around me. Or I hear stories that better help me understand why some don’t believe as I do. And some stories can leave me feeling broken hearted but grateful that I was able to offer a moment of comfort.
Being genuinely interested in people and caring about what they have to say is how I best understand peace. Conversation by conversation we find we are more alike than different. We get out of our comfort zone and learn there are other ways of being. We learn about the happiness of others and carry a piece of that with us when we leave. Or we learn about the sadness of others and share the burden—understanding better that we are here for each other. We let people know that their lives matter. And it is as simple as asking about a bowl of soup.