The other day a man began talking to me at a coffee shop. He seemed hungry so I shared a little something with him and he began to talk, breaking for small moments to have a sip of coffee but quick to begin again, with no chance of me to really respond. The first thing he said to me was:
“Did you see my dog out there? She’s drying in the stroller. She’s all I got.”
It was another day of rain in Vancouver and he was soaking. He said he was 73 and it looked as though he had had a hard life. It sounded like it too by what he spoke of. I found myself in a range of emotion from what he spoke of, questioning his honesty at times. I work in social services, am highly sensitive and have a background in psychology so my mind wanders into inquiry often and as such listening, truly, is an art I practice.
“Could this have really happened?”…
“No, that’s terrible, I wonder if he is lying”, pulling information to the forefront, judging “perhaps he is struggling with his mental health….he did mention addictions”…
Perhaps he is not and this is, in fact, his story and I am hearing it. Afterall, 73 years of life can hold many a story, and when you don’t get a good start, get lost in addiction and past trauma the experiences are like a stun gun to the heart and mind of another who has not experienced nor knows of such a reality. While I did not feel I was judging him, my mind was losing attention, trying to piece things together, to make sense of what he was saying, noting the lack of cohesion and confusion in what he was saying at times. And while my mind was doing that I was losing a moment with another being who was just speaking. The truth is irrelevant in that scenario. What is important is sitting still and listening as another opens.
Eventually I told the man I must be on my way and as I got into my car he left as well. I watched him push the stroller outside, his dog in the front seat and an umbrella fashioned to the side, above the dog to keep her dry and warm as he walked in the rain: “she’s all I got”, he had said.
People have good hearts and good intentions but these get lost in the muck of one’s own life. As we get lost in our experiences and the fast pace of our culture, we lose connection and presence to ourselves and others. We do not even realize that what people say to us filters through the lens of our own cumulative experience and so we think we are listening and we offer our best response, sometimes hastily. Unfortunately if we are not aware of ourselves and able to be present, we will be responding to our own interpretation based on our own beliefs instead of listening to another, objectively.
We spend so much time trying to figure things out, trying to relate other experiences or stories to our own experience, to find comfort or solution, that we lose moments with others and fail to listen. This is not necessarily something to feel blame and shame regarding. It happens so quick and it is a function of our incredible brain that looks for patterns, balance and validation of our own experience so reality feels safe and manageable. However it is important that we know this and become aware of it if we wish to be better listeners, if we wish to have healthy relationships and if we wish to really give and receive love. Which we all do, this is what it is all about.
So no, I do not believe that people listen with the intent to reply. People have good intentions but people are plain and simple, hungry for connection. It is no surprise that we fail to listen and fight to be heard. Awareness, compassion, stillness and presence. These are the things that will slowly cultivate better listening and better connection. These are the things that will ease the hunger and do great repair to our lives relationally, with one another as well as with our environment. Once you slow down. Once you learn to meditate. Once you learn to go out in nature and pay attention, to learn to attend to your own body too, you will hear the whispers of another’s heart and your own. You will hear and see so much more. And you will be able to listen.