I was just leaving St Patrick’s Church in New York when a young Brazilian came over to me.
"It’s great to see you," he said, smiling. "There’s something I wanted to tell you."
I was equally pleased at this encounter with a stranger. I invited him for a coffee, told him about my awful trip to Denver, and suggested that he go to Harlem on Sunday to attend a religious service there. The young man, who was in his twenties, listened to me without saying a word. I talked on. I said that I had just read a novel about a terrorist group that launches an attack on St Patrick’s Church, and that the author had described the scene in such detail that I had noticed many things I had never seen on previous visits. That was why I had decided to go to the church that morning. We spent nearly an hour together, drank two coffees, and I dominated the entire conversation. Afterward, we said goodbye, and I wished him a good trip.
"Thanks," he said, moving off.
That was when I noticed the sad look in his eyes; something was wrong and I didn’t know what. Only after walking a few blocks did I realize what it was: the young man had come over to me saying that there was something he needed to talk to me about. During the whole time we spent together, I had been in control of the situation. At no point had I asked him what he wanted to tell me; in my desire to be friendly, I had filled up all the spaces, I hadn’t allowed one moment of silence when the young man could have transformed a monologue into a dialogue. He may have had something really important to share with me. Perhaps if I had been truly open to life at that moment, I too would have had something to give to him. Perhaps both my life and his would have changed radically after that encounter. I will never know and I am not going to torture myself with the fact that I failed to take advantage of a potentially magical moment: mistakes happen. But ever since then, I have tried to keep alive in my memory that farewell scene and the sad look in the boy’s eyes. I was incapable of receiving what was destined for me and so was equally incapable of giving what I wanted to give, however hard I tried.
- Who convenes the meetings or conversations in your life?
- Who decides what you will talk about?
- Who decides what you will not talk about?
- Who decides what the conversational rules are?
- Who decides when the conversation or meeting is over?
"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked." - Mark Twain
"I try to follow the advice that a university president once gave to a prospective commencement speaker. 'Think of yourself as the body at an Irish wake,' he said. 'They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.'" - Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor