Paying attention

I met Alban Vasquez in the summer of '67. I was working at the New York Times, a messenger boy for Sulzberger, the publisher, delivering packages throughout Manhattan. Most times I ran the messages; it was a good way to train for what lay ahead in the Marines.

Alban was a bookbinder, binding together the published editions of the Times and saving them for posterity. On the surface he appeared to be an old, simple and humble man; but silent waters run deep, and the depths of his intellect had no bounds.

Each day we'd discuss the headlines and probe the minds of the great thinkers. I found it strange that Alban could quote T.S. Lawrence and decipher Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," yet he attended an improvised school in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and never finished the sixth grade. His intellect was expansive, and he possessed a certain innate wisdom. He just knew things about life and circumstance.

We spent hours together, developing a friendship that would last for years. "Alban," I asked one day, "what's the secret to wisdom?"

Without hesitation he responded, "Paying attention…just listening."

I was a crazy kid, filled with zany ideas and ambitions. Alban would just sit and listen and the rare times he would respond were only when I had boxed him into a corner. "You've got to see the forest for the trees," he'd say. "That will come through the powers of paying attention."

Many years later I read a quote from Socrates: "It is important to pay attention to the young." I thought of Alban and knew that he must have known this.

His simple components of wisdom have served me well.

The scientific method is based upon observation, then inquiry, and then more inquiry. Observation is a constant in the path to truth. Postulating one's beliefs subject to what was discovered comes last. However, instead of listening to another we are often forming a counter argument. When you are listening to someone, completely and attentively, then you are not only listening to their word but also the feeling of what is being conveyed to the whole of it, not part of it.

Listening is the temporary giving up or setting aside one's own prejudices, frames of reference, and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker's world from the inside. Thus, the unification of the speaker and listener is an extension of us. New knowledge is always gained from this alchemy. Setting aside the self signifies the total acceptance of another.

Listening is as powerful a means of influence as speaking and is as essential to all communication. Will Rogers said, "People's minds are changed through observation and not through argument."

As I matured my observational skills increased exponentially, mostly from necessity. The jungle near the Laotian boarder would be a laboratory that would test the validity of Alban's assumptions.

By studying Native American philosophy, I am convinced that their ability to get close to the core of life is based upon the ability to see the world in small yet significant detail. This core belief is defined in the Vision Quest, which is a rite of passage whereby one finds their identity and purpose in life. To the Native American, the power of observation is critical.

For years Alban and I continued to explore the depths of human thought. We wrote each other frequently. In one of his last letters he wrote, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk."

As I think back about Alban, I realize what a treasure he was in my life. I wish I could have learned much more about his philosophies and precepts, but unfortunately I was too consumed with talking about mine.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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