Her name was Laxmi, and she had long, dark hair and intense gray eyes. A wicker basket was strapped to her back to hold the driftwood she was collecting from the beach. These were special pieces, carefully chosen for how they would fit into the sculpture garden she was building at the yoga ashram where she lives.
I’d seen her on this beach before. She was, she told me, choosing to live apart from the negative energy plaguing the rest of the world. “You have no idea what that can to do your body,” she said. In the ashram she was free to see people as they really were. She was free to become her true self. “You should visit sometime,” she said.
I told her I might, though I suspected I wouldn’t.
We wished each other well, and I rejoined my two friends, who had continued to wander up the beach. “Did you get her life story?” Nancy joked.
I grinned. “What do you think?”
It’s one of the things I do best, getting people’s stories, though I don’t purposely set out to do it. People just tell me about themselves; I’m not sure why. But I love it.
Maybe it has something to do with my journalism background. Through reporting I learned how to ask people simple questions, and how to listen for their responses—not the off-the-cuff answers, but the real ones. I discovered how hungry we all are to talk about our lives. So I ask a question or two, and most people answer. How often do any of us have a chance to really be heard?
A deacon at our new church sometimes goes to public events with a sign that says “Free Listening.” She’s amazed by what people tell her, and the depths of their stories. But as she says, it’s much easier to tell your secrets to a stranger. You can talk without fear of consequence. Imagine being able to unburden your heart, to speak out loud all that you’ve been afraid to say! There are many people with whom I wouldn’t share the simplest thing about myself. But I think I could tell my darkest thoughts and greatest fears to this woman. How can I be as open and loving as she is?
Once many years ago, a girlfriend gave me a long hug and said, “I can tell you anything, and you don’t judge me!” This left me speechless. I never confessed that her story was so outlandish, and her behavior so risky, that I was simply at a loss for words. Silence may be golden, but often it’s mistaken for complicity. Still, nothing I might have said was likely to change what she was doing.
And where lies the line between wanting simply to be heard and seeking helpful advice? This is the trickiest question of all. I had nothing wise I could have offered my friend. I was too young. She was too headstrong. Maybe by keeping quiet I helped her more than I realized.
This question still plagues me as I listen to stories, whether from friends or strangers. I want so badly to help. But too often I’m afraid that anything I say will be taken as lecturing. The kindest thing I can do is to shake off the idea that I know how to fix the person’s problem.
All these thoughts about listening and being heard came together last week when I went with a friend to a theatrical performance by the nonprofit group Maine Inside Out, run for and by young people who have been incarcerated and released. Ten or so men and one woman acted out short scenes illustrating what they’d felt during their arrests and incarceration. It was not uplifting, except for the parts where they talked or sang about how much support they’d gotten from each other.
After the show we were invited to mingle with the performers. My friend and I were standing on the sidelines when a performer named Peter walked right up to us and began talking. Peter was in his early twenties. He told us he’d grown up in a sketchy neighborhood in Portland, and he first landed in the midst of trouble when he was seven. He was walking down a block where he’d gone many times before—but he was wearing the wrong color. Gangs had recently taken over the area, and you showed your allegiance, or lack of it, with your wardrobe. Peter was wearing red. He should have had on blue, according to the older kids who surrounded him and began threatening him with baseball bats.
A rival gang intervened and drove off the others. But in return they told Peter he’d better join their ranks—or face the consequences. He joined.
In his late teens he was arrested for a crime at a local shop. He didn’t give the details, but it was violent enough that he did time in Long Creek Youth Development Center, Portland’s juvenile detention facility. When he was released, he went back to the shop to apologize to the owner. “He saw me and started yelling at me, telling me to get the ---- out,” he said. “I said, wait man, I know what I did was wrong. I came to apologize.” He managed to make the man hear him. That was all that mattered, that his apology be heard. It was the most important thing in his life just then.
And now we were helping him be heard anew.