Listening: Initial Thoughts
Hi. I’m starting this blog so that I can share with you some sense of the experience of
listening, and perhaps think ‘out loud’ about the questions that this project has raised in
and for me, lessons that I’ve learned (or unlearned), and the meaning of this
I’ve been taking my chairs and poster out to various places in my home region, San
Diego County, for about 4 ½ months now. When I began doing this, I had made a
number of assumptions about what it would be like and who would join me. I had
assumed that younger people would look at me, a guy in his early 60s, and would not
want to speak with me. I’m pleased to say that this assumption was wrong. It has been
a tremendous pleasure to have the chance to listen to and speak with quite a few
people in their teens and twenties.
I had assumed that, if people did choose to sit with me, many of them would want to
speak about issues of politics and culture, the sense of division many of us experience
in this country, and the anger and anxiety that the issues of the day have fueled. Wrong
again. I would say that roughly half of those who join me want to ask me about the
project, and the other half sit because they have something they wish to discuss, and
much of the time the issues they speak about are very much personal in nature: grief
and loss, loneliness, relationship issues, struggles with feelings about themselves,
fears, difficult decisions. And, yes, some speak of anxieties about this society and the
world, the future, climate change, and the political scene. But that is a small minority.
I particularly want to share with you a sense of something important that has changed in
me since that first summer day when I set up in a park in the town where I live. Starting
out, for want of a better way to put it, I didn’t know how I would react to the potential
outcomes of a session: perhaps lots of people joining me in two or three hours; perhaps
no one joining me; or one or two people joining me. Would I tie my sense of the value of
the project to having lots of interactions, and wonder whether there had been any value
in expending those hours when I had few or no interactions?
At first, honestly, I struggled with this. At times I wondered what it meant to sit there with
hundreds of people streaming past me, and no one joining me. To come to some
understanding of this, I have tried listening to the project, to the ebb and flow of the
experience, the busy sessions and quiet sessions, and almost always the surprises that
come seemingly out of the blue.
What I have learned, what I believe I understand now, what the project has taught me,
is that what I am offering cannot be understood or valued in relationship to any number.
It has nothing to do with how many people stop to read my poster, or join me. What I
think I understand now is that listening in this way, being present in a public place,
without distraction, ready to meet people in any way that they present themselves, is
more like a discipline. It is a sort of meditation. It is a practice in attempting to live, for at
least a short while, without expectation of any kind, and with a will to non-judgment.
What I believe I have come to understand, after these months and hours, is that I am
there to make myself available to those who truly want or need what I am offering. It
may be someone who is deeply moved and/or excited and/or inspired by their
understanding of the project itself. It may be someone who is in a moment of pain or
doubt or confusion or crisis or for that matter happiness, and, in the moment that they
see me, is in need of that human contact, that focused ear, some sense of care directed
toward them. I believe there is value simply in being present among other people, and
giving them the chance to consider what it means to see another person offering the
modest gift of their time and attention, and sharing a thought about the importance of
But what I believe I now understand, above all else, is that I will be found by those who –
– in that place, in the moment of that day – are ready and open and in need of this
interaction. There are days when a number of people who come across me are ready in
this sense, and there are days when no one happens to pass who fits this description. I
think it’s likely that every single person who ever walks by me in every place I go would
have such a moment of readiness, and of course I include myself. If this is true, then the
core value of engaging in this practice is, simply, being there. Just being there. And
therefore everything that happens and does not happen in those two or three hours is
simply what it is. And seeing it as such makes judgment about it nonsensical – there is
nothing there to judge. That is what I think I understand at this point in my experience.