The universal language of listening

As I sat in Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela, I was enchanted by the tropical plants, though poinsettias were the only ones I knew by name. The others were beautiful strangers. Not recognizing them added to my sense that I was an outsider.

The people also were strangers to me, even though their clothing and their briskness were more like what I was used to seeing in New York than in other Latin American cities I had visited. Only the children skipping home from school, wearing white smocks over their clothing, and the university students using sidewalks as chalkboards on which they wrote math and science problems seemed exotic.

I had reached the point where I could read Spanish and write simple sentences fairly well. I could say in Spanish almost anything I needed to say. But I understood only words spoken to me directly, and then not always if the speech was rapid, as Spanish usually is.

In Spanish, people use the same word for "I don't understand" (or "I don't get your meaning") that they do for "I don't hear you" - that is, "my ears are not picking up the sound of your words." I had learned to say, "I am sorry. I don't hear you," when the speech became too fast, too full of words I didn't know.

In the Plaza, that long-ago day, a young woman tending a toddler struck up a conversation with me. She asked the usual questions, which I could cope with well: Are you North American? What city are you from? How do you happen to be in Caracas? What do you think of our city?

The woman seemed satisfied with my replies, especially my sincere praise of the beauties of Caracas. I also said, "I love the Venezuelan people. But I don't always hear what you say in your beautiful Spanish."

The young woman rose from her seat, picking up the child as she did so. "No, no," she said, "You do not love us. When you truly love us, you will hear us. You will hear our language."

I was taken aback by her judgment. How could she feel I didn't love her and her people? Then I wondered, How do I really feel about them? I find them charming, interesting, beautiful to look at. But I fail to see them as God's creation, as I try to see myself. I am constantly aware of an "otherness" between them and me.

I resolved to change, to see them as familiar to me as they are to God. And I did change. At first I needed to make a conscious effort. But gradually, naturally, I found it easy to see them as of my own family and I as one of theirs.

I began to understand conversations whether directed at me or not. On buses, in stores, on the streets, I was no longer unhearing. I felt the same excitement I had known as a child when I moved from figuring out letters and words to actually reading.

A few days later, I was on a plane to Rio de Janeiro. I felt a little sad to be leaving my newfound skill in hearing Spanish for a country where it is not spoken.

Then I realized that I could, I must, love Brazilians as I had learned to love Venezuelans. I would, as I had finally learned to do in Venezuela, focus on likenesses, not differences.

The greatest joy of Brazil, for me, was that I did find it easy to love the people. As I listened as I would to my own brothers and sister, I could understand their language, Portuguese. I could clearly hear the Brazilian people.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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