Toward the middle of the Spring 2017 semester I spent abroad in the country of Oman in the Middle East, I found myself participating in two of my favorite things: enjoying God’s beautiful creation and building things from scratch with my hands.
I was sitting on the beach building a masterpiece of a sandcastle and occasionally taking a moment to look out toward the vast waters of the Arabian Sea. At the time, I was unaware of the group of guys standing behind me mocking my attempt at building a sandcastle.
The group of guys, roughly around my age, walked over to me and asked if I would like some help. Not knowing what else to say, I said, “Sure if you guys really want to help, you’re welcome to.” Then, to my surprise, the whole group busted out in laughter, and in an attempt to teach me a life lesson, they then went on to say how foolish I was to accept their help. They argued that in life we need to be completely focused on ourselves as individuals and not accept or offer help to one another. This makes us weak and will ultimately distract us from getting where we need to go in life.
Surprised by their statements, I took a few moments to gather my thoughts. After experiencing nothing but kindness and help for the last three months from the people I had experienced here in the Middle East, these guys were breaking the social norm of what it meant to be a Muslim in Oman and the core values of what it means to practice Islam.
I then went on and asked if they themselves had ever received any help in their lives. Laughing, they said no: they had done everything on their own and would never need any help. I paused, and, looking at the self-proclaimed leader of the group, I asked if it would be ok if I offered my help to him. He stood there semi-surprised, so I continued on and graciously pointed out that his white shirt was inside out. The whole group paused, looked at the bright red face of their leader and then fell to the ground dying with laughter.
Soon after this embarrassing episode, the leader also found this situation humorous, and he cracked up too. We all ended up spending some time together the rest of the evening, hanging out, talking and getting to know each other better. I am a true believer in learning about one another through intentional conversation.
Listening to others well can create an atmosphere of comfortability where dialogue is mutually challenging yet also respectful. Unfortunately, this conversation started off with the demoralization of my sandcastle, but from there I was able to understand why they believe what they believe and the experiences that have brought them to where they are today.