Four Life Lessons from a Thousand Conversations
A journalist recently asked me how many interviews I’d done while hosting the Open House radio show. Some quick sums put the estimate at about 1500. After five years hosting that program, and another decade in broadcasting before that, I have met thousands of amazing people, heard a plethora of inspiring tales, and learnt a number of personally significant lessons about life.
As I review those interviews and thumb through the reflections scribbled in my journals afterward, a few recurring themes stand out to me. I offer you these four life lessons gleaned from a ‘thousand conversations’.
Lesson 1: Your deepest desire is to be seriously listened to
I am certain of this. At times I have been astounded by what people will share with me on-air while thousands of others listen in. But I shouldn’t be. Your deepest desire is to be seriously listened to and if someone you trust offers you their ear—and eyes and heart and focussed attention—you’ll share your life and soul.
‘I’ve never called a radio station before,’ a girl named Samara once said, ‘and I don’t even know why I’m telling you this as I’ve never told anyone about this before. I’m working as a prostitute and this life is eating me up. I need a new life, and I need to find God again.’ Over the years I’ve heard a number of similar confessions—of adultery, pornography addiction, self-harm, secret lives and deep doubts. Sometimes the only ingredient missing for a ruined life to change is having someone to tell the story to.
With this in mind, one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else is the gift of undivided attention. The story you hear in response may shock you. The opinions and beliefs shared may infuriate you. But listen. You know how much you need to be listened to so you know how much your friend does too. You’d be amazed at the opportunities you then get to speak.
Lesson 2: At the heart of your life lies the question of faith
At some stage every human being thinks about the existence of God. History shows this, as does the existence of the world’s many religions and philosophies. Only a few indifferent souls buck the trend. The rest of us—atheist, agnostic and believer alike—have felt that pull to consider the idea of a First Cause, a universal Spirit, a divine Being… a Creator.
It’s been my privilege to hear many of these ‘faith journeys’ over the years. Some end in heartbreak. ‘I understand the wrath of God very well,’ author Bryce Courtney told me, ‘but I’ve never come to terms with the love of God.’ A strict, punishing, church-run orphanage turned him away from a deity.
Some of these journeys end in joy. It was hard to contain the happiness of Yazz—whose 80’s hit The Only Way Is Up catapulted her into worldwide fame—as she described her experience of finding God after years of disillusionment. ‘When we are searching and lost and confused and we just take that step to turn back, [God] is there running towards us.’
And many journeys simply continue, with open minds and much reappraisal, as conversations with Ray Martin and Geraldine Doogue displayed. ‘Now that I’ve stopped running a million miles an hour I’ll probably give [faith] more thought than I have in the past,’ Ray told me. ‘The whole notion of [Jesus] being humanity’s scapegoat… I find that tricky,’ confessed Geraldine as we discussed her Catholic upbringing.
I can think of one, maybe two, people who didn’t appreciate me exploring faith matters during our interview. The majority were keen to talk. The days of keeping mum about personal beliefs seem to have passed. All a spiritual conversation often needs is a question asked with sincere interest.
The believer says, ‘I believe there is a God.’ The non-believer says, ‘I don’t believe there is a God.’ Belief lies at the centre of both statements. At the heart of your life lies the question of faith. I have spoken to too many inquisitive, enquiring, doubting and completely-made-up-my-mind-without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt people to believe that the topic of faith really doesn’t matter. It does matter. Search your heart.
Lesson 3: Have some dreams but choose them wisely
A blind adventurer dreams of flying from London to Sydney. Two Australian artists dream of taking their stage show to Broadway. A singer-songwriter dreams of international success. Many a dream has been shared on Open House, and I have heard of many a dream fulfilled. Each of us needs a dream to call us forward, onward and upward. Dreams keep us alive.
Yet our dreams must be chosen with the utmost discernment. ‘I thought God wanted me to be the next Walt Disney,’ Phil Vischer told me, after the collapse of his VeggieTales empire. Illness stalked him and bankruptcy followed. It turned out that God’s dream for Phil’s life wasn’t what he’d envisioned. ‘Dreams can be dangerous friends,’ Phil added, noting how unmet ego needs can distort them.
Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller achieved his dream of becoming a successful author, yet the achievement didn’t make his life any more meaningful. ‘I couldn’t talk to animals and the conflict in my life didn’t end,’ he said of his success. Former Korn singer Brian Welch put it this way: ‘My dream had come true and I was touring the world… When you can buy anything you want—any car, any house, whatever—you’d think that it would fulfil you but it didn’t fulfil me or my friends.’
I’ve heard similar sentiments from sports stars and businessmen, entertainers and academics. Dreams centred on achieving status, riches, personal significance and esteem are prone to leave us washed up, empty and cold—even as the crowds applaud.
No, the dreams which really do prove fulfilling have a different motivation and focus altogether.
Doctors Reg and Catherine Hamlin established the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia—the first hospital of its kind in the world and now a centre of physician training for this debilitating ailment. As Catherine described her deep, settled faith during our interview, it seemed to me that her ego needs had been met through her relationship with Jesus Christ. When she and Reg arrived in Ethiopia and saw the need, their dream for a hospital was focussed on one thing: not some hidden ego need to be remembered in the history books, but the restoration of these desperate, ostracised, urine-reeking women. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has healed over 35,000 women to date from the fistula condition. And, ironically, Reg and Catherine will be noted in the history books.
Have some dreams but choose them wisely. May your dreams spring from a heart satisfied by the unconditional love that God himself offers you, and may they be focussed on the life and healing of others.
Lesson 4: You can change
A brothel madam has a change of heart and now helps ‘working girls’ to leave the streets. A Zimbabwean terrorist puts down his petrol bombs and today is known as a preacher of peace. A Cambodian villager hunts down his family’s killers, finds them, confronts them, and… forgives them.
These past few years have found me listening to some profound tales of transformation. The stories have been amazing—and true. Lives can change. You can change.
Some of my guests have had their entire lives turned around. Nicky Cruz roamed Brooklyn’s streets as one of New York’s most feared gang leaders. When a bespectacled country pastor came to preach to him, Nicky’s gang beat him up and spat on him. Then one day Nicky listened to the preacher’s message—and was melted by the love of God.
Some of these guests have found a mysterious strength to do the seemingly impossible. Sokreaksa Himm watched as his family was brutally murdered by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. After coming to faith he felt Jesus prompting him to return to his village, find the killers, and forgive them. Most of us have no idea of the fear Sokreaksa overcame to do that.
Nancy Heche lost her husband of 25 years to AIDS—the result of his secret homosexual life. A few years later her actress daughter, Anne Heche, started a public lesbian affair. Nancy overcame her feelings of betrayal and public exposure through the strength of God. She now champions love and compassion to the homosexual community.
Other guests have changed to live lives of radical self-sacrifice. Reg and Catherine Hamlin left their comfortable Sydney gynaecological practices for the dusty, heart-breaking streets of Ethiopia. Australian couple Mark and Cathy Delaney moved into a New Delhi slum to serve the poor. Sydney grandmother Irene Gleeson flew to Northern Uganda, perched a caravan on a hill and started a school for war-traumatised kids. She now serves over 8000 students. ‘Sometimes I do say to God that I’m tired, I just can’t do it anymore,’ Irene told me, through tears. ‘And he says to me, “Just be there”.’
You can change. Your heart can change. You can be empowered to love, forgive and serve radically. All of these guests told me their transformation came when they surrendered their lives to the ownership of Jesus.
These are just four lessons learnt from a ‘thousand conversations’. I could write a good number more. And there are a thousand more yet to learn.
Q: Tell me a ‘life lesson’ drawn from your own conversations and life experience.