Commentary: Ears Wide Open

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I truly believe that, with a bit of prompting, some empathy, a sincere interest in others, and the willingness to listen, people will open up about themselves and share their stories. I also believe that people want, and need, to talk and it just takes someone who is all ears to help make it happen.

I was recently in Kansas City for an economic-development summit to learn about best practices and to meet other “doers” from across the county. There were 450 attendees doing more or less what I do in their cities to promote economic development. It was really inspiring to hear from these passionate folks working to make positive contributions in many ways. Though mostly strangers, it was a very comfortable environment since everyone is so dedicated, speaks the same language with each other, and were very welcoming.

During the summit, I bounced around as many breakout sessions as possible, eavesdropping and trying to pick up as many golden nuggets as possible. At meal breaks, attendees were encouraged to meet new people and just talk. I had great conversations in that short period of time and thoroughly enjoyed all the different perspectives and life stories.

I have previously written about my wanderlust, so being that it was my first time in Kansas City, I had the chance to get out to see new things, talk to strangers and make some connections. I am truly fascinated with people from other parts of our country, and this summit provided me with great opportunities to engage strangers in conversations. And even better yet were the conversations I had with the locals. I like to know who people are and what they do, and get them to open up to tell their stories beyond the summit agenda items. On this particular trip it was as simple as “Hey, how’s it going?” to get someone talking.

The first conversation of note was with my Cuban Uber driver who immediately tried to explain that he didn’t speak much English. We drove in silence for a few minutes as we headed towards downtown. I could faintly hear his music playing, so that gave me an idea. I broke the silence and said “Listen to this” and played him “Quizas, Quizas” by the Buena Vista Social Club. His face lit up immediately, and he began to smile and laugh. “Wonderful!” He then started to sing and translate the words for me. He pulled over and played me a favorite song of his, explaining that it was the farmer’s music of Cuba. As we drove again, he did his best to tell me that he had come from Havana, lived in Miami for a short time but it was too expensive and then followed his brother to Kansas City. He said there wasn’t much Cuban stuff around but at least it was more affordable. Then I asked him about the dish mofongo, and he flipped out. “Oh, yes. You are making me remember so many nice things. I need to call my wife!” We had such a great sharing experience, and it was music that bridged the language gap.

Just as interesting was my return-trip Uber driver. We started with small talk about work, Kansas City, and our careers. Then he opened up to tell me that he became a quadriplegic at age 14 from a bad hit playing football. He says it was just one of those things: he lowered his head and took a hard shot that changed his life. Two years of therapy got him to walk again, but there would never be any football, baseball or all the activities he had taken for granted. Not walking or playing again was never a consideration for him while in therapy, so he slipped into a dark period of his life. We talked about his process of grief, recovery, anger, acceptance and motivation to move on with his life. Besides driving for Uber, he owns a small business and is a motivational speaker for athletes who are going through major injuries and recovery. His life story shared in the 15-minute ride back to the hotel.

And there was Matt from Santa Fe, director of the Santa Fe Economic Development, who was moving to San Antonio to do the same thing. We spent an evening over dinner discussing work, life, kids, aging and the “greater good.” He talked about his fascination with how people get the way they get later in life– especially when you think about those experiencing homelessness who grew up in American society, who went to high school, and who probably went to their proms. What happened to them after graduation that led them to the streets or city shelter? Do they have any recollection of when things were normal? Or did that time ever exist?

John the concierge told me he loves to stay out on Saturday nights until 4am. The streets are so quiet when he gets home. He loves to stay in bed most of Sunday with a smile on his face from his memories of Saturday night.

I laughed with Terry from Baltimore when he told me how he loved all those nights watching his favorite 1970s TV shows like Rhoda, Mary Tyler Moore, Barney Miller and those silly variety shows. The country may have had its troubles and undercurrents of social unrest, but he was never bothered by it when he had his shows on.

The self-confessed introvert from Hartford talked about how she wasted away so many afternoons in an empty ballet studio. All those sunny days spent indoors kept her safe and isolated as everyone else was outside living, breathing and enjoying the fresh air. After six years of that, she was finally ready to overcome her anxiety and leave those stuffy four walls and welcome the weekend with other people. She was happy with her career, but it certainly took a while for her to bloom.

The guy in front of me at Joe’s BBQ was intense. After small talk, he randomly admitted to not being a very good boyfriend. He doesn’t know how to be. Call it ADD or immaturity, but he said he just can’t look past himself. After his confession, he shook his head, stared into space for a second, then abruptly turned and placed his order and walked away.

The guy from Denver said he has no problem helping others or cleaning out a friend’s garage or back yard, but he just cannot muster up the energy to clean his own apartment. That’s why he works for a community development nonprofit. He loves to help others but can’t even take himself to the doctor.

I overheard this conversation at one of the breakout sessions: “I recently came to the conclusion that I cannot relate to 90 percent of all the people I come across daily. Correction: 90 percent of all people in society. I just don’t speak the same language or come from the same place. It’s lonely sometimes.”

At another breakout session, the one urban planner from Massachusetts shared that when he looks at the ocean he starts to feel really, really small. He can look out to the open water and feel the waves waiting to swallow him whole. He really understands that the sea is much bigger than he. How could those small wooden ships sail through the dark, deep waters? Were the Puritans afraid of those 40-foot monsters surrounding the ships? This guy is in awe of the pure power of the sea. Some days he gets the urge to throw himself right into the mouth of one of those monsters…out of fear and respect.

That was heavy for a morning session.

Standing in the lobby of the Steamship Museum, an older gentleman responded to my question, “How’re you doing today?” He said: “It hasn’t all been bad. There have been a lot of individual ‘moments’ or episodes that I can recount.” He fondly remembers warm weekends out at the lake. There have been fun times with friends, but he doesn’t consider his overall life to be anything significant. He’s spent years waiting for the holy grail to appear. He hasn’t gone anywhere interesting recently. No personal achievements to be proud of, at least nothing since college graduation. He talked about serving in Vietnam, and I believe he carries the “melancholy” with him. Says he’s happy enough regardless. I said I hoped he had a great day touring the city.

The employee of the museum store said to me: “Tourists are innocents. They have the best intentions. Always dressed like they are from somewhere else. Always pointing their cameras at everything. They have great expressions of curiosity and wonder on their faces. They really enjoy the new sights. It’s nice to be a tourist from time to time.” I agreed.

Another summit attendee told me he was voted Salesman of the Month six times last year. He has two loving children and worries about their health. Coaches little league and soccer. Makes it to the plays, recitals and concerts. Believes in God. Loves weekends in the mountains. Goes with the flow, asks for very little. Calls himself the perfect utility husband and father.

Last, and by no means least, was the guy from Portland. Self-proclaimed nice guy, middle manager, always the last one to leave the party and is usually the one in the kitchen cleaning up before driving home alone. Says he never arrives empty-handed to a party or friend’s house. Walks to his favorite Chinese restaurant for some take-out. Empathetic. Sympathetic. Very creative. A dreamer. Loves the arts. He stopped wondering long ago why people, especially his friends, didn’t reciprocate the same energy towards people, places and things…more so, the intangibles like new experiences. Deeply believes all humans are equal. A member of no clubs or affiliations. Rarely drinks, only in social situations.

It was a successful mission for me since I got to listen a lot. All of this was like Disneyland, or better yet, entering a real-life Storybook Land where you can just walk up to someone and press the “Hello, my story is…” button and engage in conversation. I was on a roll and could get people to open the door or lift the curtain. It was obvious they wanted to talk– I could see it in their eyes and see it in their face. I kept putting these stories in my memory bag one after another. There was no way to learn all 450 attendees’ stories, but that would have been amazing and enlightening.

Truth be told, everyone has a story to tell and, regardless of state lines and other differences, we are more alike as humans than not.