To be honest, I haven’t actually done much international travel. My husband and I took an extended “babymoon” in Europe the year before we had our first child, and I’ve since been to El Salvador a couple of times in order to hobnob with my husband’s extended family. Not too shabby, I guess…but plenty of my acquaintances have traveled more than I. Then again, a few of my friends have never been out of the country, and several of them have yet to venture west of Pennsylvania.
If this description fits you, fear not: traveling is not the only way to expand your your horizons. After all, not all of us can afford to go globetrotting. Travel, however, is not the point. (Fooled you, didn’t I?)
I’ve recently been considering the above quote by Mr. Twain, and have decided something: People, even more than travel, can destroy our prejudices and broaden our minds much more effectively than a few trips abroad.
Counterintuitive, you say? If I harbor predispositions against various people for reason A, B, or C — sometimes unconsciously — then how can those very people change my feelings? Well, you make a good point…but stay with me: I believe they can.
As with any reputable program, the first step toward acquiring “broad, wholesome, and charitable views of men and things” is to admit that one has a problem. I’m going to be even more transparent than usual here and give you some examples from my own life. Let me tell you about some…mental blocks (yeah, let’s call them that)…that I carry with me as I come into contact with other people:
- Anyone who doesn’t listen to classical music is unlikely to be intellectual.
- Super-friendly people are probably ingenuine.
- Athletic types are usually kind of conceited.
- Only very careless people use bad grammar.
…and, well, you get the idea. (Don’t hate me. Please?)
When we’re honest, we realize that our preconceived notions say much more about ourselves than about those we keep at arm’s length. For instance, the above generalizations suggest that I’m an esoteric snob who feels threatened by people who do a number of things much better than I ever can. (Ouch). Did I mention that Step One might be rather painful?
Difficult though that is, the next step…I’m sorry, but I’m just doing my job here…is excruciating if you’re an introvert. Because — you guessed it — you’re going to have to talk to people you don’t already know. Sometimes even initiate conversations with them. Daunting? Yes…but most of the things that make us better people aren’t things that come easily to us.
For much of your life, you’re surrounded by people who more or less resemble you. Even if your siblings and parents seem totally different from you, chances are that you all look pretty alike to non-family members. (Don’t deny it). So: you spend about eighteen years in that setting, then go to college and spend one to ten more years (give or take) with people who probably share quite a few similarities: age, choice of major, extracurricular interests, etc. By the time you graduate (or not), it’s probable that you’ve unconsciously developed a concept of what kind of person is tolerable, interesting, and worthy of your time.
Adulthood, however, has a way of shaking things up.
I won’t pretend that I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood; as enriching as that would be, it’s just not where life has taken us. Nonetheless, it contains numerous non-musicians, quite a few friendly people, and even some athletes. Then, of course, there’s my church…and there are my in-laws. So many people, so many of them NOT EXACTLY LIKE ME.*
It’s tempting to write off all those weirdos, hunt down a few like-minded individuals who complement your personality, and hunker down in your comfortable corner of the earth as long as they let you. If you’re honest, though (see above), you might start to realize that Others have something to offer to the world. And that the only way to truly appreciate their unique personalities, gifts, and interests…is to get to know them.
Since we moved into our current home twelve years ago, I’ve made friends with people who wouldn’t have even been on my radar when I was young and foolish. Not that I would have shunned them (I’m not an ogre, for goodness’ sake), but I wouldn’t have thought we had enough in common to pursue a deep friendship. Yet, through various circumstances, and through a conscious effort to appreciate the different things that make us all tick, I’ve formed lasting friendships with people who, at first glance, seemed to have very little in common with me. People who have helped me to grow in spite of myself.
And that brings us to the last step. (Only three — isn’t that great? It’s a very efficient program). We started by acknowledging our own biases; we now finish by acknowledging that other people — different people — are actually okay. That they might, in fact, enrich our lives and change our perspective on things. And that, by the way, “changing our perspective” can actually be a very good thing.
We don’t all have the travel opportunities that Mark Twain did. (Or his writing ability…or his wit…but I digress). We all, however, have amazing opportunities all around us in the form of people…potential friends who can teach us something if we let them. Only, however, if we’re willing to take that first step.
*For those of you who know me, and are freaking out about the bad grammar, rest assured that it was intentional. Artistic license or whatever.