April 15th, 2011

Finding a new way to listen

It’s the kind of conversation that might occur anywhere two reasonably sociable strangers find themselves sharing time together waiting for something to happen – a long line at the registry of motor vehicles, a tedious train or bus ride or an unforeseen delay in the airport’s departure lounge. It’s the kind of conversation we usually try to avoid, burying our noses in the daily paper or a good book. Sometimes, however, we get hooked as I did one day not long ago. My partner in this dialogue began with a comment about our shared predicament in heavily accented English and, before I knew it, I was caught up in a story that would show me a new way to listen.

It was a story of growing up in a distant land familiar to me only through news dispatches from that part of the world so often beset by social revolution and natural disasters. It was familiar too because my companion and I were of similar age, his boyhood and mine running along parallel lines of development oceans and continents apart. He spoke of events that had held the world’s attention for a time and, like most international crises, faded into the background when more urgent developments took their place.

If these events affected me at all, they did so in the way a compelling film or book temporarily raises our consciousness to important issues or by making life inconvenient as when an oil crisis causes gas prices to rise. But inconvenience, intellectual stimulation and moral outrage are nothing compared to the effects of these same events on my companion’s life.

He was a good storyteller, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner to my wedding guest. Like the wedding guest, when he holds me with his “glittering eye,” I “cannot choose but hear.” What I hear is a chronicle of history sprinkled with titillating insider information that comes either from my companion’s life experience or rich imagination. He refers to historical figures of the time, periodically checking my memory and comprehension and proceeds only after assuring himself that I am still following. Like a camera adjusting its field of view, he varies his perspective, zooming out for a wide-angle analysis of geopolitical forces and back in again to describe his small and quite accidental role in what became a grand historical drama. He says little of his move to the United States and what happened since, but brief allusions to hard times and intrusive emotions tells me that he is a complicated and uneasy nexus of global and personal developments.

The train pulls into the station; the airplane starts to board; the registry clerk calls my number. Our time together comes to a close and we say goodbye but thoughts of the encounter linger. For some reason, I think about how our interaction might have been different if it had taken place under different circumstances. Had this man sought my professional services as a psychologist, I would have steered the conversation toward those glimpses of distress that he provided when describing the aftermath of his involvement in world affairs. I hope I would have also had the presence of mind to recognize the skill, courage and resilience he showed throughout his life’s adventures. Alternatively, our encounter might have occurred in the classroom with me taking notes while the learned professor held forth on matters of international import. This would be no dry history lesson, no mechanical recitation of facts, but a thorough discussion and analysis of events, cast in the sparkling light of the teacher’s lived experience. We might have also met in my mechanic’s garage where the guys talk about the old country and what they were doing on the ground while I was getting the news from the media. My companion would have fit right in, trading his own stories of daily life under the old regime with theirs, nodding solemnly in agreement or voicing sharp opposition to opinions about the quality of life under different governments.

As it was, we did not meet in any of these places but in a chance encounter where I found myself listening in all three ways, as a psychologist, a student and one of the guys in the garage. As a result, I believe I learned more and understood my companion better than I would have with any single mode of listening. So why not listen the same way in the consulting room? When the ancient mariner shows up on our doorstep and blames his misfortunes on the albatross, we are in our therapeutic comfort zone and know exactly what to do. Let him appear with tales of shoddy construction of the merchant fleet or ships becalmed by global climate change and our course of action is suddenly not so clear. I don’t know how long the effect will last but, at least for now, I watch the nightly news not as an epic movie but as a collection of biographies of millions of people I will never meet, until one of them starts telling his story.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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