ONCE on a family road trip, I remember standing outside the car with my dad, waiting to get back on the road, when he explained to me the discoveries he’d just made about a large grove of moss hung “live oak” tree he’d been watching in the minutes before I joined him. I soon realized that the tree I saw, a strong, thick entanglement of trunk and branches encrusted with a weeping moss, was only the beginning of what actually was standing there.

My dad wrote a poem about the tree and told me that careful observation is a good poet’s most important tool. A good poet doesn’t spend hours writing about what he knows. He spends that time waiting for the subject of the writing to express the lesson to be learned.

Writers who understand the power of observation soar past those who may use more obscure language or trend formats. This is because they take the time to learn the truth about what they are writing about and open their readers’ eyes to new ways to look at life.

Because poetry and the human experience are so tied together, it isn’t surprising that this lesson about writing is just as much a lesson about how to live and understand people.

I remember this quote from a movie: “Truth is like poetry and most people hate poetry.” This may be true, but it isn’t what poetry offers to people that they don’t like, it’s the work it takes to unveil its gifts that is unpopular.

An elementary school religion teacher once scolded me for not paying attention, saying I was hearing but not listening. In other words, my ears did their job of picking up the sound waves that left her mouth. The problem was that when her words reached me, I did not expend the thought energy needed to receive the words as they formed, these meaningful sentences she intended to deliver. Instead of learning her lesson, I was only encountering it.

During a 40-day yoga program I recently completed with my mom, I learned that this discrepancy between hearing and listening has a relative in looking and seeing. We participated in an exercise, standing face to face, while looking into each other’s eyes. In seconds I began to cry. Although, I had looked at my mom countless times during my 23 years of life, it was one of the first times I actually saw her.

If unity in our country is to be found beyond its name, it is now vital that we attempt to truly understand those around us. 

It is rare that we take the time to watch a person, listen to her and attempt to truly understand her before grabbing at things that lie on the surface and using superficialities to jump to conclusions about someone.

It may be easy enough to walk through life without really seeing people or listening to them. Humans seem to find comfort in rationality, and, as long as they gather enough information to get them from where they are to where they think they want to be, they may have little interest in expending the energy in discovering the truth of what’s in front of them.

If unity in our country is to be found beyond its name, it is now vital that we attempt to truly understand those around us. We are divided by anger manifesting from fear, heartbreak, and shared frustration.  But, if we listen to someone long enough to hear, and take time to truly understand him or her, we might discover that, while he may be lost now, he came from a place of love. If we sit down long enough with someone, we can tap into a shared humanity capable of cutting through disagreement.

Unfortunately, there are people who have intentionally taken themselves out of a place of love. These people are filled with hate, anger and prejudice, and it has to be said that the communities they have victimized for so long are not responsible for understanding them and in many situations it could be dangerous for them to even try.

However, this country longs for people who feel called to understand and be understood by those against them. If your strength, privilege or compassion draws you to those who are misled and asks you to look into the eyes of someone who might actively be fighting against your well being, you have the power to change lives in a unique way.

The world needs scientists, philosophers and builders, but it also needs poets. Poets show us more than what lies beyond the limbs of a tree. Poets show us how to break down the barriers that stop us from truly witnessing life, witnessing ourselves, and witnessing others. If you are a poet, accept the challenge to exercise your gifts.  If you can change even a few sentences of the poetry of today, the impact will outlive us all.  

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