A few weeks ago, my 6-year old son Gabriel asked me if stories were made or made up. I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I decided that he meant were stories “created” or “built.” Well, this got my little writer’s heart beating faster and I immediately began imagining an in-depth and brilliant reply that 1) touched on the power of words to create things, 2) extrapolated on the biblical “And the Word became flesh,” and then 3) ended up with a pleasing recitation of Pablo Neruda’s stunning poem “The Word.”
Still…I love his question, and it reminded me of this quotation by Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” I am going to do something one should never do, which is to take a line of poetry out of context and turn it into something completely unrelated to who and where it came from. (It’s just that I don’t really like the poem this line is from–“The Speed of Darkness,” from the 1968 book of the same title–and the line is so cool, so I’m going to use it for my own purposes. Sorry Muriel Rukeyser).
The universe really is made up of stories, and our ability to create stories from and about our lives is what makes us able to give our lives meaning. The real miracle, though, is how important listening to other peoples’ stories is, for us and for them. In fact, whether or not you are truly listened to changes your story. Your own sense of who you are and whether you matter depends to a very real degree on whether you feel seen and heard.
Here is a story that illustrates this. I taught a creativity class this semester, and we did an exercise on “deep listening” that I learned from a workshop I’d once attended. The activity goes like this: 2 people, both seated, face each other, making eye contact, and one person is the speaker, the other is the listener. The speaker is asked to tell a story about something important to them–it doesn’t matter what it is. After two minutes, the listener is told to turn their eyes to the floor so that they are no longer making eye contact. The speaker keeps talking. After two more minutes, the listener is told to hold a blank piece of paper between their face and the speaker’s. The speaker keeps talking until told to stop.
You can imagine how this unfolds. Both people feel awkward. The listener feels that they are no longer doing the right thing–making eye contact, nodding, showing that they are there and present. The speaker feels an increasing sense of futility, or an urge to speak louder, be more engaging. Often speakers report that their stories feel less and less important when the listeners turn away.
Now this is really sort of a mini miracle and here’s why: the listeners have nothing to do with the speakers’ stories. The stories are completely separate experiences, with their own meaning to the speakers. But that meaning starts to change, and in this experiment diminish, when they feel they are not being heard. Who you are becomes more or less real depending on how well you feel heard and seen. That’s the miracle.
Because it means that we all have so much power to give those around us what every human being is truly longing for: to been seen and heard for who they are. Of course it also means that we have the power to diminish those around us by not paying attention, not being present, doing in conversations what Fran Lebowitz called either talking or waiting to talk.
I’ll ask you the same question I asked my students: picture one of your most important relationships, and think about how you demonstrate to that person that you are paying attention to them, listening deeply to them. If I think about Gabe, for example, one very simple thing that I do to let him know I am listening to him is to repeat what he says to me. Right now he is pretending to be an elf. I mean, right now, at this very moment. He’s standing in front of me with a little statue of the Eiffel Tower on his head saying, “I’m an elf.” And obviously I am not really paying attention to him because I am writing this blog. But if I don’t stop and say, “You’re an elf?” he will keep talking, louder and louder, and in more annoying ways. For example, now he’s singing “Jingle Bells,” over and over, because he doesn’t like when he knows I am focused on something other than him. But as soon as I turn and look at him and say something like, “You really like that song, don’t you?” he says, “Oh yeah, man!” and calms down.
Yesterday I had a “crucial conversation” with someone I work closely with. We were in the middle of a confusing and potentially really annoying situation, and I had the chance to use a deep listening strategy I learned earlier this year. I said something like, “I’m hearing that you have a need for certainty and clarity around this issue. Is there anything I can do or say to respond to that?” On my side of the table, at least, it felt like this brought calm and trust into the conversation. I see you, I hear you, and you matter.
I truly believe that this is what we are all longing for–just to know that we matter. On Facebook yesterday someone posted the question, “If you could have anything at all that you wanted for Christmas, what would it be?” Now to be completely honest, my first thought was to lose 15 pounds overnight. But then I thought about my year, and how every good and bad thing that happened had something to do with whether those involved felt seen, heard. When we don’t, all the bad stuff–tension, pettiness, distrust, fear–gets amped up. But when we do, everything calms down and opens up. Mini miracles. And ones that we hold in our hands every day.
And if we can remember this, just even some of the time, love wins.
by Gary Johnson
A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.