Sometimes learning to live more fully requires you to challenge your assumptions, change your habits and step outside your comfort zone. Too many people spend all their time in the company of people who look, think and act just as they do and miss out on the delights and challenges of building relationships across cultures. Too often people give up on their dreams because they’re anxious or they want to fit in. “I’m not really talented enough…I might fail….It’s not normal…What would people think?” If you let these thoughts control you your life becomes constricted and you miss opportunities for skill-building, creativity and connection.
Later articles in this series will offer in-depth suggestions for cross-cultural communication, artistic creativity and continuing education. This article describes some first steps to help you stretch your comfort zone in various ways.
Meeting “Those People”
When you think of cultural exchange you might picture foreign travel. But people with different foods, stories and music for you to relish, with different skills for you to learn, with different perspectives to broaden and challenge your understandings, and with different questions for you to answer can be found close to home, if you’re paying attention. The digital revolution has made it easier for us to correspond with people across the world, but it has also made it easier for us to inhabit a bubble of like-minded people. We now have to make a deliberate effort to engage with neighbors–or even relatives–whose lives and assumptions are different from our own.
Take public transportation, and don’t put on your headphones, pull out your cell phone or pile your stuff on the seat next to you. Leave a space for a newcomer, and smile at people as they board. If they smile back and seem open, start a conversation. You might be amazed by what you learn.
Volunteer. Outreach projects–building homes for Habitat for Humanity, serving at a nearby soup kitchen, helping out at a CSA that donates some of its produce, picking up trash in a local park–can bring people from very different walks of life together. Shared work builds mutual trust and creates many opportunities for story-sharing.
Trying New Skills
In this media-saturated society we tend to think of music, dance, sports etc. as performance arts practiced by exceptionally talented people. Less digitized cultures are more apt to view these activities as basic parts of community life in which all interested people can engage. There’s value in seeing the feats of which exceptionally talented people are capable, but there’s also value in using your own body and mind fully and building your own skills and confidence.
In most of our communities there are still places where people participate in satisfying activities together rather than putting on performances. Community sports leagues welcome people with energy, enthusiasm and courtesy, whether or not they’re star athletes. Community choruses and jam sessions welcome singers and instrumentalists at all levels of ability and create an environment where it’s easy for more practiced musicians to mentor new ones. Writers’ workshops offer a place where people who aren’t yet experienced wordsmiths can hone their skills, tell their truths and find their voices. Look for these opportunities.
Of course while you’re learning you’ll make mistakes; from time to time you’ll probably look very foolish. That’s not the end of the world. A supportive community group will laugh with you rather than at you, offer sympathy where it’s needed and help you learn to do better next time. When other members of the group make their own spectacular mistakes you can do the same for them. Along the way you’ll learn somethings fully as valuable as any concrete skill set: courage, openness, resilience.