Listening is different than hearing, it’s hearing and comprehending and reacting. Listening, I think, actually listening, demands response. That response may be ignorance, but that’s still a response.
A few years ago, I was sitting across the table from someone who had lost a parent to the Troubles. A bomb went off before it was supposed to (or so the story goes) and all of a sudden this person knew what it was like to grieve. They told me about the funeral, how there was no body to bury and how indignant their grandmother was about the lack of a proper Christian burial because of it. We talked about bodies and mourning and what that looked like in their family and drank a few cups of tea in the process. We hadn’t met to have that discussion, but after something triggered a painful memory, our afternoon quickly became about it.
I was ready to wrap up the conversation, as I was sensing that they were done visiting this place in their mind, when they made a comment that arrested me: “You know, no one has ever listened to me tell that story before. I’ve told it a bunch, but no one has ever listened.”
When I asked what they meant, they pointed out that I asked some specific questions to show I was processing what they said, held the waitress in the cafe off from clearing our cups when they were at a painful point in their story, leaned forward to make sure I could hear over the din of the cafe. “No one has done that before.”
When I do those things that this person prized is usually when I’ve slipped into what my friends call “social work mode”. It’s become subconscious, when I know a painful memory is about to be recounted or a conflict between people is about to arise in front of me. My training comes to the forefront and I behave automatically. I’ve been to so many seminars on active listening, been graded on my ability to ask questions, that these behaviors no longer register to me as strange.
What my training has never prepared me for, though, is how to respond when someone points it out as abnormal. I usually sheepishly smile and make a social work joke. This past few weeks, however, I’ve wondered if I should respond differently. If I should simply say that I’m glad their pain was finally acknowledged, or their story was finally heard, and ask if I can do anything else.
A huge theme of the 4 Corners Festival this year was acknowledgement. The brave and gracious people who shared their lives with the participants asked for nothing to be fixed, they had no grand plan, they mostly just wanted their stories to matter and their pain to be part of the national narrative. Their suffering is to terrible to name, and yet they graciously did so. And all they asked in return was to be listened to.
I’m back in America now, and there are moments the words don’t reach here, too. They may not come attached to bombs or checkpoints, but they exist all the same. So I find myself trying to slow, trying to pay attention, pausing in conversations more, letting more space for pain to appear if necessary. Engaging my training more intentionally to create more acknowledgement, more time for those stories to emerge.
I’m still processing so much of what I heard, so many of the conversations I was privy to, that I’m sure these ideas will evolve and be re-visited. (Which is why this post is also messy and meandering – I feel like my soul is right now, too.)