I had to take an obligatory speech class in college, and there was nothing I feared more than speaking in front of people. I am a somewhat shy person, more shy then, than I am today, and only liked speaking to people in situations in which I am in control.
I don't like public speaking. At all.
But I discovered that I could take a course called Interpersonal Communication to satisfy that whole speaking business, so I signed up. The first day of class was fantastic; we were told that we would learn the rules of communication, of active listening, of conversational participation; we were told of papers we would write and the tests we would take. We were required, however, to take part in a Dyad experiment, which would be a conversation between two classmates using the techniques we learned in class. We would then prepare a lecture to be presented to the class regarding out dyad experience.
What? Lecture? Huh?
I began to perspire, and Day One Class still had an hour left. But I stayed, and told myself it was one lecture, at the end of the semester, and that I could do it.
The class itself was quite interesting; learning how people really don't listen....they really don't. And how we can learn to listen; learn to communicate. I thoroughly enjoyed the class and the professor. And then came more talk of the Dyad.
The class was divided in two, and the professor picked one person on the left side and asked them to pick a person on the right side as their dyad partner. I began scouring the other side of the room, so that when it was my turn to pick I wouldn't blow it. I saw this woman, Olga, a bit older than myself, and different enough that maybe the conversation would be easy. I would pick Olga! I could breathe and I sat back awaiting my turn to choose.
Then the professor called Olga's name and I froze. Olga was mine! I wanted Olga! Now, I began looking again at the other side of the room and could see no one I would choose as a partner. Then I caught Olga's eyes, and she chose me. Really? Me? Okay. Breathing again.
The assignment was that we would meet outside of class at least five times, and use the interpersonal communication skills we learned in class to carry on a conversation. We would write an update after each meeting and turn these in; we were simply instructed to 'get to know one another.'
Olga and I met the next day, and the conversation started off slow but okay. I learned she was from Russia and had recently left her homeland to come to the United States because she was a devout Christian and could not worship openly in her country.
A devout Christian? What had I done?
So, our conversation quickly shifted away from the minutiae of our existence and we began discussing religion. This was a definite no-no, as our instructor had warned us, because it was a divisive topic, and didn't lend itself to Active Listening.
Still, we continued. Olga was quite close-minded about anything that didn't coincide with her beliefs, while I was quite open-mined about the possibility of different thought. Olga actually talked into seeing a Billy Graham lecture/sermon when he came to Sacramento.
Me? Billy Graham? Hellfire and damnation?
But I went, and it was, well, interesting. What i got out of his lecture/sermon was that it was best to be nice to people, treat them as you'd want to be treated. Sorry, Billy, but my parents beat you to that lesson.
Still, it was nice to be in that room and feel the peacefulness surrounding everyone. Until we got in to the parking lot. I never heard so many horns honking or saw so many middle fingers raised as I did watching those Billy Graham followers try to get out of the parking lot first. Hadn't they been to the same lecture/sermon as I had heard? Did they only believe in that room?
Olga and I had an interesting talk about that the next day, and strangely enough she hadn't witnessed a single finger or heard any profanities. perhaps she hadn't chosen the Heathen Lot as the place to leave her car.
And so our talk then switched to Heaven and who would get there and who would not. Her strong convictions led Olga to believe that only those who accept Jesus Christ into their lives would get to Heaven, and those who did not would go to Hell. But, I argued, say I am a rapist and murderer, a pedophile and thief, a homosexual, all of my life, and then the instant before I die, I ask Jesus for forgiveness and he allows me into Heaven.
Yes, he would, she said.
But what if I life my life the "right" way, never harming anyone, always doing the good and noble deed, never breaking any of man's or God's laws, but I don't believe in Jesus?
Then you go to Hell.
Well, I wanted no part of a faith like that, so I shifted the conversation to other religions, and she said there were no other religions, that all of those "faiths' were wrong and those people would not get to Heaven.
I explained my belief that all faiths and no faiths were paths on a mountainside, and we make choices on which path to choose, and we follow our chosen path up the mountain. The paths intersect every so often and you can change paths, if you think it's a wise choice, or you can stay on one path. But all paths lead to the same place, whether it be Heaven or Nirvana or Pittsburgh.
No, she said, it was Christianity or Hell.
Well, I think it's quite clear what I chose.
But the interesting thing about the dyad was that neither of us gave up on the other. We were able to use what we learned in class to continue the discussion, and listen, really, listen, to what was being said.
Olga didn't change my mind about religion, and I didn't change hers. And the day that lecture came, where I was to speak in front of that class, there was no sweat, or nerves. It started off quite simply:
Olga is a very religious woman, and I'm very...not...............