We are witnessing history in the making at this moment in the USA. The upgrading of the murder charge against Derek Chauvin from 3rd to 2nd degree is almost unheard of, as is the indictment of the three others on aiding and abetting charges. But that was the response to a united and peaceful protest effort across the USA that spilled over to cities around the globe. What happened during the protests? People….who did not have much of a voice before…were finally heard. I watched cops paying attention to outraged and heartbroken civilians. I watched them join the protesters. I watched them hug the protesters (social distancing be damned). The deeply rooted institution of systemic racism in our beautiful country seems to finally be unraveling because the right people have started to listen.
When I was arrested a few years ago on a busy Chicago street in a wealthy neighborhood for a crime I did not commit, the communication piece was not the greatest. The police officer wrote in his report that he had read me my “Miranda rights”, but he hadn’t. He simply lied and wrote that he had. During the arrest as we rode in his squad car (me handcuffed in the back seat), I suggested that we might be able to solve this issue in ten easy minutes were he and I to return to the scene of the non-crime and have a little chat..a conversation…with the woman who accused me of punching her in a bar after she refused my request for a cigarette (I don’t smoke; I’ve never been in the particular bar or seen the particular woman). But the officer preferred to take me to the precinct and toss me in a cell for a few hours. I asked if I could take a book into the cell to read while I waited, but he informed me that I really had no right to any such thing, so there I sat. For hours. Then I had 3 months of lawyering, court dates, blocked from leaving the state of Illinois (never mind that I leave the country once a month typically) and a few thousand dollars to get the case thrown out and my arrest record expunged. Speaking calmly and listening would have made a BIG difference. It would have cost the taxpayers a lot less money. It would have freed up that office to do several more hours of “serving and protecting” that evening. But he would have none of it.
I don’t believe we need more police in uniform in the USA. I believe we need a well-paid, compassionate police force that is highly trained in healthy public relations. The training part is one thing. The compassion part is a character issue. And while character can be developed, if you don’t really care about people...if you just want a badge, a uniform, a gun and a feeling of power over people, please don’t go into policing in my country. But…let’s train officers...to engage in…conversations.
Conversation is the stuff of life. Conversation can turn an ordinary day into a life-changing, ever-memorable experience. Speaking and listening is a gift, a tool, and instrument, a force of power, a pathway to kindness, a journey to cerebral expansion, an assault of beauty on the emotions. When 17 years ago I started working at home alone in a house I live in by myself, I promised myself a substantive conversation at least once every 48 hours with someone who mattered to me, and that practice not only preserved my sanity, but it broadened my world.
Conversation is one of the most exciting things I look forward to when I travel around the planet. While I take in history, art, culture, local cuisine, fine hotels and local activities with great gusto and passion, I think it’s the conversations I have with locals that I remember the most. In conversation, especially when I do most of the listening, I see things I never thought I’d see and hear things I didn’t know were there to be heard and I learn things that I need to know. One of my more memorable conversations took place in 1987 in Beijing with a group of students who wanted to practice their English by speaking with the American, and they asked me several questions, mostly just to hear me speak American English. Among the questions, “Who do you think was the greatest USA President?”. I had to ponder that for a while because I didn’t really have a favorite at the time, but I ended up saying that I felt Abraham Lincoln had the greatest social impact, and I explained why, and I probably also mentioned the decisive leadership of FDR and Harry Truman. They also wanted to know why the Americans would elect a B-grade movie actor to the presidency (Ronald Reagan was president at the time), and I realized they didn’t know he had governed the state of California for years before he became president. But eventually, I turned the tables to ask them who THEY thought was the greatest USA president, and without hesitation, they all quipped in unison, “Richard Nixon”.
When I was a sophomore in high school Richard Nixon resigned from the office of president. This was unprecedented and has not happened since. It was a historical moment of colossal proportions. A friend my father’s age declared, “I can’t believe the president of the United States LIED to me and to all the American people”. In those days the public did not expect politicians to lie. It’s probably safe to say that the vast majority in the USA had NO USE for Richard Nixon at that time, and things hadn’t changed much over the next 13 years. I can say that I personally had never LISTENED to anyone EVER say that they considered Richard Nixon to be the greatest of USA presidents. So naturally, a long CONVERSATION ensued during which I came to understand how much Nixon meant to the Chinese because he was the one who opened trade with that vast nation. Nixon’s 1972 visit to China was huge to the Chinese and entire generations there were influenced by it. All this had been overshadowed in my brain by the crimes of Nixon. It had never occurred to me that this man, so despised at home, could be so beloved by an entire nation across the Pacific. But I did not learn about this in a textbook. I learned about it in a conversation. In China. With Chinese students.
Thirty-three years later I’m still trotting around earth, always careful to engage in conversation with people I meet. Conversation has enriched my sensitivities, spiced up my thinking, kept me guessing and wondering, in short—conversation has made me wealthy. No one can ever steal or destroy the wondrous assets I’ve pulled out of conversation.
in Colombia—trying on shirts
Conversation with Ty.
Evans and I…..conversing in Botswana