In a three-part series of blog posts, I told about a particular trip that set the course of the rest of my life. We were living in Australia when I was a young boy, and rather than flying back to the US, my parents decided, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of but am eternally grateful for, to take us on a five-week odyssey the “long way around.”
The things I was exposed to on that trip – being confronted with other languages and cultures for the first time – largely explain my love of languages and cultural dynamics today. I consider it a calling — my “Personal Legend,” as referred to in Paolo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist – to introduce others to the vast and diverse beauty of the planet we inhabit. This is why my wife, Becky, and I conduct cultural tours to Europe under the company we have formed, World to the Wise. We believe that in the 21st century, a well rounded education – whether we’re talking about students or adults – must include a certain degree of exposure to other cultures and languages. This is why I teach French, Spanish, and World History: to bring the world to my students to whatever extent possible and to show that there are always reasons why things are the way they are.
In the last few years I have become aware of another part of that Personal Legend that comes from deep inside.
I am a bridge builder.
When I was in my early 20’s, I was cast as the disciple John in a musical depicting the three years of Jesus’ ministry on earth. At one point I found myself breaking up a fight between impetuous Peter and one of the other disciples (James, I think). The director had me in between the two hotheads, physically separating them and finally shouting, “Love each other!” Had the writer had his way, he would probably have added a “Damn it!” at the end of that line, but the religious environment prohibited it.
Over the years, I’ve found myself growing into the forcefulness of that role. The fear of confrontation of my youth has steadily given way to a driving desire to see opposing parties reconciled. I have been permanently marked by a principle found in different parts of our cultural heritage. The wise king Solomon wrote in his mysterious book Ecclesiastes, “It is good to grasp the one without letting go of the other; the man who fears God shall avoid all extremes.” (Eccl. 7:18) Then I discovered Aristotle. I certainly wouldn’t agree with all of his teachings (or anyone else’s, more than likely), but his principle of the Golden Mean I find profound: he professed that virtue can be found in the middle between two extremes.
I began to observe the pendulum swing of human nature and the messes it can get us into. And the pragmatic side of me says that we can accomplish much more when we learn to dialogue and make the effort to see life from another perspective.
Perspective. What a powerful word. Until I have taken time to walk in your shoes, to the best of my ability, I will never understand who you are – your ethos. It is my strong belief that a sign of maturity in an individual, as well as any given group, is the ability to look at questions, problems, and life itself from another’s perspective. To listen to another’s story. I now see that my linguistic gift is also a metaphor of my mandate to build bridges between disparate people.
For this reason, I have decided in this season of my life to commit myself to telling other people’s stories, in hopes that readers and listeners will come away with an expanded view of the world and greater clarity and insight into the issues we face.
I have developed a serious allergy to easy answers and black and white thinking. We live in a complex world with lots of nuance. I believe that love is by far the strongest force in the universe and that we all have a God-given capacity to give and receive it. But life has its way of throwing up obstacles to that love, and the life that is spent overcoming those obstacles is a life well spent. Just as reality is most often found between two extremes, the heart and intellect are not mutually exclusive.
I do not take for granted that we live in an age and culture that are favorable toward creativity and innovation. Creativity has too long been relegated to the arts, which are indeed a powerful and vital voice; but creativity can be found in every sector of work and play, and I encourage it wherever and whenever possible.
My work in this season of my life includes encouraging Americans and others not only to look beyond their borders and get to know the rest of the world, but also to practice exploring other perspectives within their own culture. As mentioned above, it also means telling stories – stories of real people in real circumstances that will help shed light on pressing questions and issues of our day. If I can play a small role in bringing understanding, healing, reconciliation, and cultural intelligence, I will consider my life well spent.
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?” – Shannon L. Alder
Here are some blog posts that help explain my ethos:
- The Problem with Binary Thinking, Part I
- The Problem with Binary Thinking, Part II
- Chewing the Meat and Spitting Out the Bones: How to Learn from Just About Anyone
- The Reason for My Madness, Part I
- The Reason for My Madness, Part II
- The Reason for My Madness, Part III
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