I came across this interesting piece of writing purely perchance and thought it would be great to start the new year with it, instead of what I originally planned to do…to write about new year’s resolutions gone awry already!
It is the story of a shy writer who wanted to interview a few people about their lives, their values, the hopes, dreams etc. She travelled cross-country in the USA, jotting down the questions she might ask on a little pad that was right next to her on the passenger seat at all times.
I think what drew me to read it in the first place was the idea of “planning” and “preparing” that sometimes needs to go straight out the window – it is knowing when to do this and when not to, that really matters. I was reminded of the years that I taught at tertiary level and how the best lessons were often the ones that were spontaneously student-driven and not necessarily the ones that I had meticulously prepared the night before. So, here goes:
“When I pulled out my pad of questions and focused in on the first one, I looked right into his eyes and asked, “Where did you get your values?”
He stared right back at me with a deep, vacuous look, and after several long moments, said, with a very southern, two-syllable drawl, “Wha-ut?”
I panicked for a second, and then heard a little voice in my own head whisper “Go first.” Realizing I could be helpful by giving an example, I went first and told the story of how my mother always told me, when I passed a person on the street, to look that person right in the eyes, give them a big smile, and say “Hi,” as friendly as I could. I told him it was difficult at first, since I was young and pretty shy, but then it got easier and now I do it all the time, because it’s just part of me. “So being friendly is one of my values,” I said. “And I got it from my Mom.”
He kept nodding his head and chewing on his toothpick, until he finally asked, “Is it like this? When I was little and my daddy used to whup me when he’d get a drinkin’, I’d go out on the back porch wantin’ to cry and my granddaddy would be there.
He’d look at me and say, ‘Son, looks like you’ve got some big feelings goin’ on. Why don’t you get yourself a pad of paper and go down under that oak tree and write yourself some poems. That’ll help you with them big feelings.’ So I did, I wrote a lot of poems. I still do, when I need to work out my feelings. Wanna hear one?”
He recited a poem by heart, and then wrote it down in my journal. And we sat in that plastic booth for another hour and a half while he told stories he had never told to another person – about his own anger, his big dreams, his pickup truck and double-wide, his drinking problem, his fear of being in love and messing it up like his dad. And every story he told me illuminated my own darkness, taught me something I never knew, and opened my heart to bigger love and deeper courage. He found parts of himself that had been long lost, simply because I was there to hear and receive them. And the same was true for me. When we left that restaurant, we were two different people from the ones who had walked in, alone and afraid.
What I learned that day was the importance of “going first.” I didn’t know, all those years ago, that the word leadership comes from an Old English word meaning “go first.” It came like a whisper from the Muse, a nudging that caused me to open and share in such a way that the other person knew it was safe for him as well.
My story was a gift to him. It was a tale of the passing on of values, wrapped in a few paragraphs, a little history, and some visual images. And yet, it was powerful enough to evoke his own history, his own creative wisdom, and the courage to speak of his fear and dark nights. And from that intimacy and vulnerability grew a new story, a universal story, the story of Going First.
I now know, from that one experience, that I can be the cause of a profound conversation, if I dare to go first, if I share something personal and meaningful, if I ask of another a question that matters, and listen like our lives depend on the answer.
Since I value such conversations, and rely on them for my joy and sanity, I’ve been practicing this for many years now, learning more from others’ lives than I could from any book. And it’s because of that energy exchange, that vitality that rises up when two people open the pages of their hearts, share their wonderings, find their commonness.
That is the energy of transformation, the power of story. It whisks us away from our sense of aloneness, draws back the veil between one and another, and rustles up, like a gentle wind, newfound feelings and age-old knowing.”