By Peter Schaller
I went to a Chinese restaurant, in the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama.
This was the beginning of a quick road trip through the Deep South. It had been an exhausting year, for many reasons and I had a three day window, before attending to some work commitments in Atlanta. So, I rented a car, booked a couple of Airbnb’s along an improvised route and hit the road. I used to do a lot of road tripping in my younger years. I devoured Kerouac and the other Beat writers, back in those days, and drove my red Toyota pickup truck across large extensions on the upper forty eight.
There are few things as exhilarating as pulling onto the open road with an abundance of time and an absence of commitments.
I chose to head straight to Mobile because it would give me the opportunity to drive clear across the state of Alabama and down to the Gulf Coast. I made a few stops along the way to check out some small towns and arrived at my Airbnb on the outskirts of Mobile just after sundown. My hostess recommended the Chinese restaurant, as it was relatively close and would certainly have meatless options.
There was nothing particularly outstanding about the restaurant, though they did make a very good broccoli and tofu dish, with garlic sauce. The waitress was very young and spoke little English, but she was humble and gracious. I wondered about her story. How long had she been in the United States? Why Alabama? What had she left behind? What were her hopes? With limited language, there wasn’t much to do but smile and say thank you. We thanked one another a couple dozen times during my meal.
I guess you could say that I am always on the lookout for signs.
Perhaps I am pretentious enough to think that God, the universe or maybe even some dead people, will send me messages or guidance at random moments in life. So, when the waitress brought me a fortune cookie, on this—the first night of my spontaneous road trip—I was expecting nothing less than prophecy on that thin slip of paper.
I broke the fortune cookie open slowly, ceremoniously, but when I read the small, blue words, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. “Enthusiasm is infectious, stimulating and attractive to others. People will love you for it.”
Enthusiasm? People will love you for it? That didn’t sound like the kind of life-changing epiphany I was awaiting. But, I folded the paper and stuck it in my wallet, without giving it much thought, because one never knows.
I didn’t give any more thought to my fortune but I just happened to notice it, tucked into a crease in my wallet, when I was back in Atlanta preparing for a fundraising event.
I am fortunate to have public speaking opportunities as part of my job. I know that many people cringe at the thought of standing up in front of large audience and trying to speak coherently, but I have come to enjoy it. That is not to say that I don’t get nervous every time I have to speak, but nervous energy is pure adrenaline, a tremendous rush.
Fortunately, when I speak in public, I get to talk to people about some pretty relevant issues like poverty reduction, community development and compassion. At the precise moment that my fortune reappeared, I was putting the finishing touches on a presentation to raise money for our education programs in Nicaragua. It suddenly occurred to me that the timing of that sign was quite fortunate.
Upon my first reading, I was turned off by the concept of “people will love you for it.” That didn’t sound very consistent with the humility and self-renunciation that I have been yearning for, all this time. But, it did resonate on a different level. It’s no secret that we are living in some pretty desperate times and the world needs change. Every day conflict and divisiveness lead the headlines and the human race seems set on annihilation.
I took that slender paper to be more of a challenge than a fortune.
With the world in dire straits, what we urgently need are enthusiastic voices out in the world promoting peace, dialogue, empathy, compassion, altruism, social justice, environmental responsibility and so much more. In order to reach people and really have an impact and perhaps even influence, we need to speak enthusiastically, passionately about the things in the world that really matter. This is the essence of right speech.
So many people are burdened with the weight of getting through every day, battling with the toxicity that affects mind, body and spirit. But, it is up to each of us to create light where there is darkness, relief where there is discomfort, hope where there is despair. This is a time for each of us to step up and create change where we can, when we can. We don’t need to focus on changing the world, just those small pieces with which we have contact.
As I was contemplating that challenge before my presentation in Atlanta, I realized that speaking with enthusiasm really does require a conscious effort.
Obviously, there are some topics that rouse our passions, but when speaking to groups or even individuals, it’s important to be aware of the zeal that we add to our words. It will evident to our listeners. It doesn’t really matter if they love us for it, but most importantly, they will be more likely to listen intently.
I’ve tried to keep this in mind with other talks that I have given over the past couple of months and also in conversations. Enthusiasm is pure energy and energy attracts attention. Every interaction is an opportunity. Some people will recoil from the intensity, but then, some folks would rather not go too deep anyway.
That’s alright, we just need to focus on changing the world that surrounds us.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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