A year ago today, I stepped into Columbus John Glenn International Airport, freshly returned from a year in Siberia. The two-leg trip had taken me first from Moscow to New York, where I’d sat in the midst of a mission trip group whose members harangued the Russian flight attendant for hours over the malfunctioning satellite system the left them movie-less and cranky. From New York to Columbus, a male wine salesman spent the full flight teaching a female neighbor all about tasting notes and vintages while she sat, bored. As the plane touched down and he tried to solicit her telephone number, she rolled her eyes and asked, “Why, so you can waste more hours teaching me things I’ve known for years?”
Those encounters compressed the problem of so much human connection: everyone wants to tell. Few want to listen.
Listening is a hard skill, a struggle. I don’t have it fully developed yet, but more than anything, my time abroad, encamped in Siberia and supported by the Fulbright program, made me more eager to listen. As I type this, my desktop is filled with applications from Russian graduate students who hope in the near future to mirror my journey, and I’m struck by how eager each of them seem to listen and learn. Mission trips and sales treks aren’t inherently bad, but they’re founded on the goal of telling and persuading. I’m eternally grateful to have been sent elsewhere with a primary task set of listening, learning, and growing.
As I came down the escalator to the Glenn airport’s waiting to reunite with family, I was laden in all the things I couldn’t cram into my suitcase: a hat that would’ve been crushed if packed, a sweater and coat that hadn’t seemed quite so strange in Moscow as they had in sweltering Ohio, heavy boots, a necktie—all layered on to let my suitcase make weight.
But the greater weight, the more important one, had already been collected internally, through coffee shop chats and adventures into the Altai wilderness. It was the wealth only collected by listening and watching, learning and knowing others.
I’ve certainly not perfected the art of listening, but a year later, as I evaluate applications and think back on my time abroad, it is a good and warming thing to know that as the planes continue to cross the world—even the parts of it separated by barriers of politics, culture, language, and busted assumption—there will be listening and learners on board, people willing to hear each other, not just to preach and sell, but to truly try and know.