Even more problematic, I had an uncanny and compulsive knack for identifying my conclusions as actual knowledge.
Back then, my opinions were formed through a simple, three-step process: 1. Informally gather information (or not). 2. Assess the information (or not). 3. Claim my opinion as knowledge. Young and full of myself, I reserved the right to skip to step “3” at any point in the process.
Flawed as it was, this system worked pretty well in my small and controlled environment. But in late 1995, this “knowledge” formula was about to be seriously challenged by a magnificent experience on the other side of the planet.
What’s “Ro-terry?” The newspaper advertisement promoted a trip sponsored by an organization, whose name I couldn’t pronounce. The advertisement, read: Rotary Calling: Detroit-Windsor area Rotary International is seeking applicants for a five-week, all expenses-paid exchange program in South Africa. Four non-Rotarians will be selected to make the trip. After the exchange, winners will be expected to report on their trip at Rotary meetings. . .
I had a hundred questions, many of which wouldn’t be answered until we completed the trip. What would group travel with “strangers” be like? How would our racially mixed team be treated in a land that had recently abolished apartheid? Would I still have a job when I returned?
The Group Study Exchange (GSE) committee of Rotary Super District 6400 advised that we visit South Africa with a certain emotional detachment. We were coached on how to make observations without passing judgment because some of our long-standing beliefs might be called into question. My quick, three-step formula for forming opinions was about to be recalibrated into a slow, deliberate process.
Staying with host families was a remarkable and insightful treat. During previous trips, I’ve always stayed in hotels and eaten in restaurants. I was amazed at how much richer the travel experience can be when staying in a family’s home. We were privy to discussions and special observations that would be completely missed by most tourists.
Since returning from the GSE adventure, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the question: “How was your trip?” South Africa was an exciting place to be in 1995. The country had a new government with a dynamic leader named Nelson Mandela. In 1992, President Mandela had been released from prison to become President of the country!
Recently canceled sanctions had made South Africa an overnight attraction. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee, headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and other new initiatives were helping South Africa take its first awkward steps toward racial equality. At the time, I heard many South Africans say they had “more hope than expectation.”
As I reflect on the wonderful GSE experience, I remember how I learned to listen and observe with emotional detachment. The willing suspension of judgment during the trip allowed me to successfully digest information that was sometimes contrary to my beliefs and foreign to my routine. Even today, this emotional detachment helps me delay reflexive decision-making. As a result, I’ve become more open to new perspectives.
The Group Study Exchange remains one of Rotary International’s most successful projects. It links the citizens of different countries through cultural experiences in an attempt to further global peace and understanding. The lesson wasn’t lost on me.
It’s true that I signed up for Rotary within thirty days of our return, but Rotary changed me before I even became a member.
Rotary opened my mind, as well as my heart. I will be a proud Rotarian the rest of my life.