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Washington MemorialA day spent walking the Monument Loop in Washington DC with my sister and her family yielded a great dinner conversation. It had been long enough since we’d toured this part of the city, that some of the memorials were new to us. The enormous obelisk of the Washington Monument was our starting point. From there we saw memorials honoring past presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt), one dedicated to a great leader of change in our nation (Martin Luther King), and several commemorating sacrifices made by the people of our country in World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

As I walked the mall experiencing and reflecting, I developed some pretty strong opinions about which monuments were effective and which were confusing, which were brilliant and which were not, which stirred my emotions and which didn’t really touch me. Thanks to modern technology, we picked up some great tidbits via Google about what we were looking at. We discovered how many lost lives each star represented on the WW2 memorial. We learned why the artist chose to include 19 service men at the Korean War Memorial. We read ongoing debates over the color of marble chosen for the MLK memorial.

At dinner, our kids and their cousins were eager to share their thoughts on the day. As a proud parent and aunt, I found myself much more interested in listening to what they had to say than in sharing my own opinions. As they spoke, my own viewpoint expanded and shifted. My niece spoke of the quiet stillness at the Vietnam Memorial compared to the noise at Lincoln. I had been so absorbed in the names on the wall and in reading the speeches in the Lincoln memorial that the difference in the atmosphere at each had almost entirely escaped me.

My daughter had spent some time on a bench in the shade at the Korean War Memorial. While sitting there, she noticed that the shady oasis was created by two hedges spiraled together. While she rested, she wondered if the separation in the hedges didn’t symbolize the continued division on Korea. I was so captivated by the statues of the soldiers reflected in the marble wall to look like an entire army that I hadn’t noticed the hedges at all, let alone the subtle gap between the two.

My son was moved by the quotations shared on the long walls of the MLK Memorial. As he walked along reading Martin Luther King’s brilliant words about the Civil Rights Movement, he was awed at how timely they continue to be in a world still torn by persecution and ethnic struggle. As I listened to him, I realized that I’d been so consumed by the sheer size of the monument and the enormity of MLK’s likeness that I’d sort of skimmed the powerful quotes rather than let them sink into me.

Perhaps most dramatically, my nephew, the youngest at the table, had noticed the use of different leaves in the garlands on the WW2 memorial. This monument had been the most confusing and least appealing for me. It felt big and rambling. As I walked through it, I couldn’t really focus or even figure out what some of the elements symbolized. He’d noticed an olive wreath and had asked his dad, a Latin teacher and Classicist, if that wreath meant peace. (It did.) He’d then seen different leaves and had learned that laurel stood for victory and oak for strength. As he talked about what he had discovered, I began to see the monument in an entirely new light.

Had I been focused on sharing my own opinions and thoughts that night as I so often am (maybe you have this problem too?), I would have missed the gift of hearing the thoughts of others. And what a gift it was to listen at that dinner. I learned. Better yet, I learned from people it would have been easy to assume that I should instead be teaching. My opinions shifted. My perspective changed. While the WW2 memorial will probably never be my favorite, I’d actually like to go see it again to check out the details my nephew picked up on. I left that table with a much more complete and complex understanding of the powerful works of art that we’d seen together than I’d had before I sat down.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.”[/mk_blockquote]

I’d say, without a doubt, that he’s right. Listening is much more transformative than talking. I pray for the wherewithal to listen more often the way I chose to listen that night over dinner. In fact, I pray we all do.