It's a privilege of travelling solo to meet people easily, to plan on a whim and make friends eagerly. We had champagne that night; the conversation flew with ease since we had so much in common: passion for travel and appreciation of good food. There was something else Santiago dropped into the conversation a couple of times: faith. I picked it up that they both were devout Christians, which is not something I can say for myself. Indeed, I probably belong to the atheist variety, despite having been christened as a child. At some point in the evening I asked my hosts to tell me about their belief. I asked the question and I vowed to myself not to interrupt and listen to them. Really listen.
Santiago talked first. He told me about his childhood, adolescence and adulthood and how his faith evolved and ultimately shaped him. He avoided using the word religion. He told me about his first marriage and even shared some earlier very intimate memories which had touched me profoundly. I didn't expect that level of trust and openness from someone I had just met. It didn't have much to do with alcohol - we had just one bottle of champagne between the three of us. It did have everything to do with genuine listening. I realised how rarely I'd done that - really listened to someone not in order to come up with the next question or to make my own point, but to simply let someone else talk without any interruption other than a gentle nod from time to time. Even as a journalist I would sometimes listen to a person I am interviewing with an agenda in mind: I am looking for a soundbite, for something that fits my story, not the story itself.
It was Leanne's turn next and she too was very candid and fascinating to listen to. They asked me then about my own views and I did share them but briefly. I was still under a spell of their stories. I didn't change my own attitude towards religion, but I understood their views and I respected them. In a different scenario, I would have simply dismissed them as wrong, unimportant or uninteresting. I would have argued my point and tried to make them see "the light". Does that sound familiar?
Over the last couple of years we have been trying to adjust to the new political reality. It's been painful and it still is. One of the worst wounds afflicted by Brexit or the election of Donald Trump was the division of the society into "us" and "them". It doesn't matter whether you are a europhile or a eurosceptic, a liberal or a conservative, what matters is this polarisation eagerly sponsored by Facebook. While previously, some read the Guardian and others read The Telegraph, they largely kept it to themselves. Today we still read the Guardian and share articles online, quickly building liberal tribes and unfriending those who share MAGR posters on Facebook. And so we consume only those opinions we already share and the views from "them" get criticised or worse - simply dismissed. As for conversations offline, it's now commonplace to ban certain topics from family occasions such as politics or gay rights. This time last year we referred to the new era as fake news vs. facts, but I think it's time to face the reality. We are back to "us" vs. "them".
If we wish to live in a better society, sharing posts on Facebook and retweeting people who confirm our own opinions just won't do. We need to engage with "the other side". We need to learn to listen. Really listen. It's imperative to understand people who voted for Trump and UKIP. We don't need to accept their views but we need to show each other some respect. It's impossible to bring people closer together in a polarised society otherwise.
With this stoke of enlightenment under my belt, I was enjoying myself at dinner in Brisbane, chatting to a few people a couple of decades older than me. We ended up talking about the referendum on gay rights which had resulted in the same sex marriage becoming legal in Australia. One of the dinner guests offered his opinion on the matter. He said: "Homosexuality isn't natural." And with that I was off the leash pointing out two male kangaroos being affectionate with each other just the other day on North Stradbroke island. I didn't listen to that man, I gave him no chance to express his view.
Was I wrong to dismiss my own resolution so quickly or are there some views which just don't deserve to be heard?