I just got home from a training seminar that I am doing for work. This was the second block of basically being locked in with 20 people – we spent four days in a hotel in the middle of nowhere.We all work in the social field, most people there are child care workers, one woman is a social worker, and I am a pedagogue working in family education. The seminar teaches us methods that we can apply to our daily work, and since it touches topics like childhood, parenting and adulthood, it is often very personal. I still remember the first time we met in December last year. 19 woman and one man, our age ranging from 23 to 56. And I still remember the thoughts that went through my head when I first saw all these people. My brain applied cliché and prejudice straight away. Three women with Islamic head scarfs – “Oh great, we will only discuss religion and I will be exposed to preaching and intolerance!” One big woman with a golden front tooth – “Oh gosh, I wonder how she got into that course!” A man who is the head of a nursery school – “Right, he is probably one of those softies that still lives with Mum!” I am exaggerating a bit, but I could feel how I was pigeon-holing quite a few of my fellow seminarees.
Half a day into the seminar I noticed that I need to take a step back and clear my head, make it a blank canvas and start again. Every single person in this training course has resources, issues, and a golden heart I can learn from. There is nobody there I do not like. Of course there are always people who you click with more than with others. But still, everyone carries a package of life history, and tells stories that can inspire you and make you think.
The three woman with headscarves have a way of thinking that is very different from mine, at least when it comes to religion and tradition. But they are open for discussion. I felt I could ask them anything, and they ask me anything. There is not judgement. There is respect for our differences. We do not have to agree, but we have to respect each others when we hear each others’ arguments. The woman with the golden tooth was born as a German in Russia. There, she was always the Nazi brat. Here she is always the Russian immigrant. Not only does she have a golden tooth, she has the biggest golden heart ever. She cares a lot for the children she is working with, and every time there is a child in need, it breaks her heart. The male head of a nursery school is a guy who has been through a lot, who has come a long way, and who has very clear views on the world. He appears very hard at times, and he will through the truth into your face at any time, but he always has a point.
This time, the atmosphere was different from the first time we met. A lot of people were feeling low, overworked and on the verge of breaking down. A lot of tears were shed, but the group always provided constructive answers. There was one woman I did not even talk to the first time, and this time we discovered how much we actually have in common.
The seminar is exhausting. I spent all day and most of the evening with people and constantly got input. Sometimes it felt too much, but I could not stand being alone in my room either. I took something from every single person home with me – be it the spirituality and calmness of a Croatian former Nun, or the depths of all the conversations we had over those four days. I felt worn out this morning, just like the shoes in the picture above. They are worn out, but still made for walking. We all walked in each other’s shoes at times, and we will all keep on walking, each at their own pace.
I hope I will be able to carry the spirit of this intense time into my daily life. I think none of us is free from judgement and prejudice. When was the last time you sat down with someone who you would normally never really communicate with, and listened? Yeah, we would probably all agree that we would totally sit down with a refugee and listen to his heartbreaking story. But would you take the time and listen to his views on society, or see what his resources are? Would you sit down with a totally stylish rich lady and listen to her story, to her fears and opinions? Maybe not!
We don’t have to like everybody. Not at all! But we should take our time to get to know someone and see if maybe there is something behind the facade. I bet we would all be surprised. And we should also practise to let our guard down and see how others react. I bet we would be surprised again!
I will meet my seminar group once more in April. Afterwards, who knows! I will stay in touch with some, and probably not think of others ever again. But I do feel that I am richer today than I was four days ago!