Walk slowly

I saw a news item once about a Frenchman, I can’t remember his name, who has photos of himself with many different world leaders.  He’s an elegant older man who dresses in fine suits and shows up at conferences and summits, easily mingling with the invited guests so that it is just assumed he belongs there.  He ends up in the photo  even though he is a “nobody”.

My church training on child protection issues warned me about these kind of people.  Watch out for “the man with the clipboard” – the person who shows up at events and through their casual, commanding style bluffs their way into places they should not be.  With a bit of daring it isn’t hard at all.  Try it: walk into a high-class hotel or conference center carrying an armload of papers and pretend to know where you are going.  You aren’t likely to be stopped.  But hang around the lobby craning your neck to look down hallways, and you are sure to be asked what you are doing there.

Willard was a scruffy old man Renata and I met on a downtown street corner in Seattle in the autumn of 1983.  He caught out attention because as we passed by he was mumbling to himself: “I’m going to heaven, that’s where I’m going”.  Feeling we had at least one thing in common we struck up a conversation with him.  Not long after, he was having dinner with us and treating us to his rendition of “You Are My Sunshine”.  In the days and weeks to come he would introduce us to a few of his acquaintances, some of whom he knew would enjoy a short stay in the immense claw-footed bathtub that was the one thing to boast about in our cockroach infested little apartment.

We saw Willard off and on during our year of living in downtown Seattle, and we saw him for the last time on a brief visit back to that fair city in late 1986.  But, like us, Willard seemed not to stay in one place for very long, so we quickly lost track of him.  I have to believe he has now reached the final destination of the pilgrimage he professed so long ago.

Willard taught me one of the most useful lessons of my life, a lesson about fitting in.  We were a clean-cut, educated young couple just arrived from Kirkland, very much from middle-class east-side Seattle.  In other words, we were completely out of place in our new economically depressed neighborhood.  One of Willard’s observations: “Slow down!  People who live here walk slowly; only those who don’t belong walk quickly.”  So we learned to walk as if we belonged, as if we had no-where else to go, and it made an immediate difference in how we perceived our new neighborhood, and how the people there perceived us.

“Walk slowly” has become a key for me – an attitude I’ve tried to embrace in the many unfamiliar situations I’ve encountered in life, whether it be trying to make a home in a completely different language and culture, or simply making my way through an unknown church liturgy.  Doing one’s best to appear relaxed and comfortable becomes a self-fulfilling proposition: before long, one really is at home in the new surroundings.

I’m not there yet, but I want to become one of those people who “walks slowly” when in conversation with others.  Sometimes I talk to people who have the ability – no matter how busy or important they may be – to leave you with the assurance that the two minutes you have with them are the only thing they have on their minds at that moment.  You have their full attention and concern.  They are walking slowly with you, even if only for a brief moment.  I want to be like that with others.

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