Guess what I overheard yesterday?

Well actually plenty, and each time it was valuable and unexpected.

To overhear something is to hear it without the intention or knowledge of the speaker. Not to be confused with eavesdropping; to overhear something is not intentionally listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t but rather just picking up the ambient conversations around you.

My first instance was walking to school in the morning. I was in an uncharacteristically foul mood. No doubt related to my stint in the emergency room just a few days prior (I’m fine thanks but my eye looks like I went a few rounds with Rocky.)

As I walked through Union Square, I noticed a man taking his three year old little girl to school. At first I was startled when I overheard her scream, before noticing that she had just playfully set foot in a chalk lined circle whose words actually invited people to scream – an outlet perhaps for a sometimes unforgiving city. She then scooted up to the next circle and asked her father what was written inside that one. “Give someone a high five,” he answered.  Which, of course, she did.

I chuckled as a smile rippled across my face. Noticing, they both then smiled back at me in return.

A few hours later, after my class, I rode up the elevator with two students. They were going to different sections of a class that I had just taught. They voiced legitimate frustrations with how their instructors were structuring the class – not knowing that they were standing next to someone who might be able to do something about it. Later today, I’ll share their concerns on a call with our teaching team.

Getting off the elevator,  I went into the faculty lounge to work. I found myself distracted by a group of three faculty members who I couldn’t help but overhear as they took turns bitching about their students. I was less sympathetic to these complaints as they weren’t tempered at all with any appreciation or compassion towards their students. It made me wonder why they chose to teach at all. While I understand the value of venting, I reflected on how I might sound if someone overheard me doing the same. It will surely give me pause the next time I’m about to do so publicly.

Finally, on my walk back to Grand Central Station to catch a train home, I passed a man on his phone, overhearing him say, “I don’t know what to tell you Tom, I just don’t understand this world sometimes.” His voice dripped with empathy as I imagined his comment was a sympathetic response to a friend’s difficulty.

Well Tom, I don’t understand this world sometimes either. But I will say, I understand it a little more each time I choose to be present. When I put my earbuds away, quiet my mind and just listen to those who surround me. Overhearing these serendipitous clips of others’ conversations can bring unexpected joy, wisdom and perspective.  Have you overheard anything recently that you valued?  Or perhaps better yet, can you imagine that anyone overheard something you said that might bring them something valuable too?

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