Listening and the Woman on the Train

Dave Isay, creator of StoryCorps, a hugely successful oral history project that lets people interview each other about things that are important in their lives, received a million dollar TED prize in 2015 to expand this work.   His 2007 book of transcriptions from StoryCorps interviews, Listening is An Act of Love, was a New York Times bestseller, as were his other books on the subject.   Listen to Isay speak– though he has always been deliberate in keeping his voice out of the recordings of people he gives the mic to– and you will be convinced: really listening to someone is an act of respect, and hearing what they have to say gives them a rare gift.   Isay reports that has seen powerless, invisible people literally straighten their spines, infused with confidence in the face of the rare gift of finally being really listened to.  They shine as they are given the chance to speak, be recorded, and then edit what they have to say into a form that can be heard by anyone in the world.  Their interviews, mundane and extraordinary, full of candor and flashes of off the cuff poetry, all worth hearing, are cataloged in the American Folk Life Center of the Library of Congress.

A preacher in a violent neighborhood in Boston, trying to bring street kids into church, has a revelation one night after a boy who was shot ran to the church. He died 150 yards from the church, struggling to reach it.  Even though the lights were out, said the preacher, and nobody was home.  The preacher realized that if a dying kid runs to the church, the church needed to come at least half way to meet them.  The preacher began to walk the dangerous streets with a group every Friday night from 10 pm until 2 a.m.   Eventually the kids on the corners began talking to him and he discovered what he had suspected from the start, these were not violent monsters, just kids trying to survive.  He said he spoke to some of the brightest, wisest, most creative people he’d ever met, these kids trying to make it on the streets.   His initiative of listening to kids has spread to many cities, changes lives and won him awards.

We do not listen.   We have many good reasons: we are very busy, life is very stressful, we pretty much know what people are going to say, we can’t pay attention to everything, we have to tune out a lot of complete bullshit vying loudly for our attention in a nonstop attempt to sell us things we don’t need, the world is brutal and unfair, nobody fucking listens to us.  Fair enough.

Riding on the A train last night a very thin, artistic looking, slightly grimy young woman let an equally attenuated and dirty looking young man sit in the one seat that was left.  He sat gratefully and she stood over him talking almost without cease.  When the two seats next to me became available the woman moved with alarming quickness to claim them and the man slid in next to her.  The young man was next to me, clutching a nylon bag in his lap, the sharp corner of which protruded dangerously.  “I’m sorry,” he said, when I was first poked by it, but he seemed unable to make the slight adjustment that would have prevented it happening again.  I quickly learned to avoid it.

“I don’t like everybody constantly judging me,” said the haggard looking woman with a good deal of feeling, “I’m so sick of people telling me what they think I should do, people who don’t know anything about me or my life.  I purposely don’t confide in people, and I haven’t told you half of what I am thinking, even though we are very close.  You are about the closest person to me, I would say, but I will never tell you certain things.  I just can’t stand the way people look at me,” she added crossly.   I didn’t look at her, but not because I cared if she could stand it or not.  

The man, speaking with a heavy French or Italian accent, did his best to find out what was bothering the woman, but she was not having it.  “You know, if you don’t tell people what is wrong, what can they do to try to make it better?” he asked.  She had a quick, angry answer to this useless question.

Listening to their conversation,  I was slightly annoyed to be hearing it but also slightly fascinated.  It was like reading a grim but engaging short story about two desperate characters, trying hopelessly to connect but clearly being sucked down a tragic alley ending in rat poison and a decomposing body that would not be found for days. 

Listening carefully is not always the answer to the world’s lack of respect, but it can be.

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