Sunday, July 24, 2011

Living Life with No Headphones

I've seen a lot of people (in Europe and the US) walking around and riding public transport while listening to their iPods. While I really enjoy listening to music, my portable mp3 player has mostly been collecting dust while I've been in college. Part of it was that I felt safer during my nightly commutes freshman year if I wasn't distracted by my music. I also enjoyed giving myself a chance to clear my head and think after listening to music most of the time I was in my room. And, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to keep myself open as I walked around campus - open to the little things happening around me and open to the people who made up the crowd. That, I think, has made a huge difference in my life.

To give some quick background, I think I've mentioned before how in high school, I was more shy and withdrawn. I had my best girl friends at school, and my friends at church, and I never went out of my way to interact with people outside of those groups. I had my comfort zone, and I didn't like leaving it. Unfortunately, I assumed that anyone who went out of their way to interact with me was either a benevolent saint (befriending me out of pity) or had ulterior motives (usually making fun of me). I just unknowingly put up walls around my inner self where I felt relatively safe. I wanted to be social and likable, but I didn't have the bravery or confidence to try at the time.

So, it was a little different when I started "living with no headphones" my freshman year. I knew several other students before I arrived for school, and I think I had hoped to run into them on campus, so I was always scanning the crowds looking for them and paying attention. But instead of running into the people I already knew, I just started recognizing people from my dorm, my classes, the cafeteria... New people who I was just starting to meet and slowly befriend. I'm pretty sure that the unique atmosphere at my university was also responsible for facilitating my growth. People are actually nice, and say hello, even if they don't know you very well. I also did a first-semester program that put me in consistent contact with the same students every day of the week, and that was a fantastic launching pad for making friends. Slowly I started taking advantage of these opportunities and started developing my social skills further than I ever thought I could. Nowadays, I do have lapses once in a while when I'm really too tired to put the effort into being social, but generally, I think I've become a fairly socially competent person (thank you Child Development class for the terminology). And the rewards of that are amazing.

I think the key was really opening myself up. Emotionally opening myself up, but also giving myself opportunities, like with walking around without headphones in. Technology is great; I love it (mostly when it cooperates). But I really think that it's important to unplug ourselves from the iPod, laptop, or cell phone - to just take a break - and allow ourselves to see things as they are, where (and when) we are.

I think that this issue is directly related to the "narrow-minded tourist" stigma. Sometimes it's done passively, when people just stick to what they're familiar with. This explanation can account for why in a mixed group of Austrians and Americans, for example, they will separate into their nation-based subgroups - it's not because they dislike each other, it's probably just because it's easier and more comfortable to associate with what you already know. And generally, I think that any actively antagonistic feelings come from an incomplete perspective. If you blind yourself to the basic humanity we all share, it's easy to fill that blank with your own imagination or stereotypes. I think that people will often see what they look for.
That's honestly what surprised me with the comments from my Austrian friends. When I walked into the LDS Institute for the first time or two, I was intimidated - I had no idea if anyone knew English, or if they did, if they would want to talk to me. But instead of looking for a friendly Austrian, I started looking for a friend. And as I approached my interactions with these strangers, having that perspective, I've gotten to know some real people who are amazing! That quality of "realness" is what I mean by that "basic humanity we all share": we all love to feel good about ourselves, we all love a good laugh, we all feel hurt and defensive if someone is unkind or dismissive, we all want to feel like we make a contribution to the world. Even if they're expressed differently between different cultures (I still have a hard time distinguishing between some forms of sincerity and European sarcasm), we all have these human desires and experiences. And that is something common enough to unite us all. We are all thinking, feeling individuals and children of God. 
So, moral of the story (I have to run to dinner now) is to open yourself up and give yourself and other people a chance. Don't live your life plugged in to your own little world - be willing to get out a little bit and see the sunshine outside :) And you just might make a new friend in doing so.

No comments:

Post a Comment