When I was twenty I traveled with the group Up With People, which consisted of 150 kids from different countries, running around Europe and the States, doing community service and a Broadway-style show. The year was heavily focused on experiencing other people’s viewpoints – we stayed with close to 90 different host families all over the world, volunteered with local organizations, and lived on a daily basis with 150 other people who may or may not have been anything like us.
We had kids in our cast that came from wealth and other folks that fundraised their entire year; we were gay, straight, bi; we were from the cities, the suburbs, small islands, former Communist countries, an African village, not to mention all over Europe, Japan, Mexico, Australia, and everywhere in the States from Alaska to Georgia to California; we were Catholic to Atheist to Buddhist; we had quiet folks and others who wanted to be in the limelight, leaders and doers, people who constantly questioned the status quo and others who hoped we could all just get along.
And we did get along. Of course, not all the time. Living with people 24/7 is hard, annoying, get-under-your-skin work and there were arguments and hurt feelings and grating nerves and sometimes you just wanted to scream, “What is wrong with all of you?!” and throw in the towel and go home where there was TV and a comfy bed and people who understood you and you didn’t have to try so damn hard all of the time.
A couple did leave because it wasn’t the right fit, which was totally understandable. For the rest of us though, we decided to stick it out – through crazy host families, and little sleep, and giving, giving of yourself until you genuinely felt like you had nothing left, only to discover reserves your reserves didn’t even know were there.
Why did we put up with all this craziness? Why did we PAY (and, in my case, take a year off of school to work to raise the money) so we could never sleep and volunteer and make our lives so much harder by living with a bunch of people whom we might never even run into our everyday lives? Because, we believed that understanding is the key to love and peace. That if we could literally live in someone’s home that was completely different that ours (a trailer, a barn, a mansion, a church, a chalet on the side of the mountain, an apartment in an inner city), we had no choice but to see life from their viewpoint. If we traveled with people that held such contrasting views to what made us comfortable, our view of the world and people would be forced to grow and expand. If we practiced listening and compassion enough, it would become a habit so ingrained that we couldn’t help but pass it along to our children, families and communities. That if we volunteered in the communities we visited we couldn’t help but have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by people with circumstances completely different that ours.
It was a big ask. Did it always work? No. Sometimes we were caught up in our cast drama and who broke up with whom, sometimes we were homesick and too caught up in our own pain to be able to heal others, and sometimes we were just too damn tired.
But, sometimes it did. I distinctly remember one session where LGBT members shared personal experiences and then, with astounding bravery, opened the floor to questions. At that point in my life, I had a few gay friends, but, as a polite, sheltered gal from the suburbs, didn’t have the vocabulary or nerve to ask the questions that might jumpstart a deeper understanding. Sitting there, listening to my friends’ experiences, was hard. There was a part of me (and I think in a lot of us that day) that rebelled against what they were saying with defensiveness to cover up my shame and embarrassment over things I might have said or done to hurt people I cared about, however inadvertently. There was a greater part though that felt relief because there wasn’t anything to be afraid of anymore – my ignorance was fully visible and my friends were still my friends, no one died, and we all left knowing each other’s hearts a bit more. Was it all rosy forever after without any hurt feelings or misspoken words? Of course not. Did it forever cement the way I feel about gay rights and marriage? You better believe it.
I believe, with a fervor normally reserved for iced coffee, that you cannot sit and listen (I mean, really listen, not just wait your turn to speak) to someone else’s story and not be affected or changed. It is impossible to see someone else’s heart and not have it touch yours.
This past week has been hard on all of us. There’s fear, divisiveness, pain on all sides – it’s as if we pulled up the rug and exposed a rat’s nest of ugliness and anger. And, to be honest, I don’t want to deal with it. I’d much rather stay at home and watch TV and talk to my friends who think like I do and complain about everyone else because I know I am right.
But, then I think about my family. The 150 family members that are spread around this country and world, because that’s what happens when you live with people – they become your family whether you like it or not. I don’t know how they voted, I’m certain many of them hold beliefs counter to mine, and I have no doubt if we traveled again for a year we’d find ways to get under each other’s skin. But, they are my family, so even if things get hard or uncomfortable, we don’t give up. Instead, we listen harder, and love more fiercely, and work to create safe places to show each other our hearts. I owe it to them to try and understand.
What will that look like? I’m still working on that. I’ve been trying to read compassionate articles and blog posts that help explain why people made the choices they did, I’m going to have curious conversations with family members who voted differently than I did, I’m going to get involved with organizations I feel passionately about so my voice and people’s voices who are harder to hear have a place. I’m going to try to remember that it’s better to admit ignorance and ask dumb questions for greater understanding than to remain quiet, I’m going to work to look around the world and make a conscious effort to engage with people who are different than myself and ask if there are places I can support them or offer my voice to strengthen theirs, and I’m going to do my best to ignore the shouting because experience has taught me true connection and meaning happen when we’re listening, not yelling at each other.
I am different than when I traveled with UWP (20 years will do that to you). There’s no way I could live in other people’s house, I like traveling with our little family of four, and consider eight hours of sleep a necessity. But, what that year taught me has not altered.We are all people, who fundamentally want to be listened to and understood, and, like it or not, what we’ve got is each other. And, while real, sustainable change occasionally happens in sweeping measures, most often, it occurs in small moments of connection when we’re open enough and vulnerable enough to really listen and help each other. Not everyone will get to this place, just like not everyone could handle the rigors of “the road” as we called it, and we have to let them go. But, for those of us willing to try, this could be a moment of change and greater depth of understanding, a moment where we stand up for each other and a world of connection rather than hate.
The Up With People in me is hoping for the best.
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